County Drug Policy Shift Weighed : Courts: Some officials consider a plan to offer nonviolent offenders treatment instead of jail. Incarceration is seen as inefficient and too costly.


Signaling a shift in Los Angeles County’s anti-drug strategy, law enforcement and judicial authorities are considering a plan to offer treatment--instead of jail--to some drug offenders.

In sharp contrast to the war on drugs’ emphasis on incarceration, people arrested for nonviolent drug-related crimes would be given the option of enrolling in a treatment program with regular testing, acupuncture to curb addiction and job rehabilitation.

The new scheme--whose cost and sources of funding remain unclear--is based on the highly touted Drug Court program in Miami, developed in the late 1980s when U.S. Atty. Gen. Janet Reno was Miami’s chief prosecutor.


An ad hoc committee of Los Angeles prosecutors, defense attorneys, judges and law enforcement officials say they want to experiment with a program such as Miami’s because putting drug offenders in jail has proven too costly and ineffective.

“We have expended incredible sums of money on the war on drugs, and we are not anywhere closer to victory,” said Los Angeles County Dist. Atty. Gil Garcetti. Once released, drug users are “coming back into the system as people who are continuing to use drugs or are turning to burglaries and robberies to support their habit,” he said.

Now, those charged for the first time with possessing small amounts of narcotics can for the most part bypass jail and enroll in educational classes known as diversion. But county health officials and others acknowledge that diversion--which does not include treatment--has been largely ineffective and unsuitable for those with serious drug histories.

The Drug Court, which would probably be instituted as a pilot project in one of the county’s 24 municipal courts, could be available to first-time offenders, or be broadened to include those charged with more serious crimes or those with prior convictions.

Although he emphasized that he has not made up his mind, Garcetti said he would consider offering drug treatment instead of jail to those arrested for selling small amounts of illegal substances or for drug-related crimes such as prostitution or burglary.

Karen Bass, executive director of the Community Coalition for Substance Abuse Prevention and Treatment, said a Drug Court program in Los Angeles would work only if it is open to those with prior criminal convictions. “The general concept of people being busted and being referred to treatment is a good deal,” said Bass. “But it can’t be reserved for the white middle-class addicts.”


Assistant Public Defender Michael Judge said he too believes the new program should encompass many who otherwise would end up in jail.

“What we want are people who are addicted and who want treatment, and you try to include as many of them that you can live with,” he said, excluding “only the ones you can’t live with, like (those who commit) violent crimes.”

Underlying the change in strategy is the recognition by authorities that drug cases are clogging the courts and jails and that traditional enforcement methods have been largely ineffective in stemming the drug problem.

Of all the criminal cases tried in the municipal courts, nearly half are drug-related, said Judge Rudy Diaz, chairman of the Presiding Judges Assn. in Los Angeles. One out of four inmates in county jails are doing time for drug possession or sales, many more for other drug-related felonies, according to a Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department spokeswoman. The county spends about $25,000 a year for every inmate.

“We have gone through a whole generation where people have said: ‘Get tough,’ ‘Let’s lock them up,’ but I think that’s changing,” Diaz said. “People have come to realize the futility of just locking people up.”

Garcetti said: “Society is not being protected under the current system, when . . . a drug user who has committed a burglary or (been involved in) prostitution goes to jail, gets no treatment and gets back on the street and commits the same crime. That’s not protection.”


A number of hurdles have to be cleared before the program can begin, including approval by the County Board of Supervisors.

A spokeswoman for Supervisor Mike Antonovich, considered among the county’s staunchest law-and-order advocates, expressed cautious optimism about the program.

“If someone commits a crime like drug use or drug sales, the supervisor supports looking into the program, because anything that can successfully get a person off drugs and keep them off drugs . . . is the most effective approach to the drug problem,” said Lori Howard. “But if someone commits a violent crime, like armed robbery (to support their drug habit), that person should go through the traditional correctional process.”

Also to be decided is whether the county or private agencies would provide the treatment services, said Patrick Ogawa, acting chief of the county’s alcohol and drug program.

Acupuncture is envisioned as part of the Los Angeles Drug Court program because it is believed to calm an addict, making the person more receptive to drug treatment.

It is unclear how much the program would cost or where the money would come from. Supporters believe it would be less costly than keeping these violators in jail, and hope the federal government will help finance the pilot project.


There have been no commitments from federal officials, but the proposal comes at a time of shifting priorities in the nation’s drug policies.

In the 1980s, 70% of federal anti-drug money was spent on stopping the flow of drugs and arresting drug offenders, while 30% was spent on prevention, treatment and research, according to the Drug Policy Foundation, a Washington think tank.

Reno last week questioned the effectiveness of spending massive federal dollars on interdiction and suggested exploring ways to keep drug offenders from coming back to prison.

Reno was instrumental in establishing the Miami Drug Court in 1989, when such proposals cut against the grain of prevailing anti-drug strategies.

Since then, more than 5,000 suspected felons have enrolled in Drug Court, and two-thirds have completed the three-phase, one-year program, said Timothy Murray, director of the Office of Substance Abuse Control in Miami. The program is open to those charged with possession of small amounts of drugs, even those with prior convictions.

After they are arrested, they are tested for drug use every day, given counseling and offered acupuncture and are required to return to court regularly to show the judge they are staying clean. As they show progress, they are tested less frequently and offered job placement assistance.


Those who return to drugs are given several chances. Most are treated as outpatients at county clinics, but serious addicts are placed in residential treatment. The program costs about $800 a year per person, compared to $17,000 a year in jail.

“This brings criminal justice goals and drug treatment goals together,” said John Goldkamp, a criminal justice professor at Temple University in Philadelphia who has studied the program. “It changes an adversarial environment to more of a team approach. It expects drug-involved people to mess up. It gives them a lot of chances.”

Those who completed the program were rearrested less often and those who were rearrested “stayed crime-free much longer than their counterparts,” according to Goldkamp’s study, which will be released next month.

“The drug treatment outcomes look very good . . . the public safety outcomes look very good,” Goldkamp said. “The criminal justice perspective and drug treatment perspective are having to learn to come together and link up. It’s a real uneasy marriage, but it’s the theme in criminal justice today.”