Success of Addicts Doing Treatment, Not Time, Questioned

Times Staff Writer

Two years after implementation, the jury is still very much out in Ventura County over whether a voter-approved diversion program for nonviolent drug offenders is a success.

Under the provisions of Proposition 36, just over 4,000 county drug offenders have been referred to drug treatment and supervision rather than being sent to jail.

Of those, 280 have completed required therapy sessions and are considered drug free. But is a 7% success rate good enough?

Yes, say the county alcohol and drug administrators who run the $2.5-million program.

It will take time to work out kinks that could be impeding a higher number of graduates, said county Behavioral Health Director Linda Shulman in a briefing to the Board of Supervisors on Nov. 1.

Since the program got off the ground two years ago, various agencies have been struggling with confidentiality rules and improving communication, she said.

Proposition 36, which California voters approved in November 2000, permits first- and second-time, nonviolent offenders convicted of simple drug possession to receive substance abuse treatment instead of incarceration.

Shulman said it is also important to recognize they are addressing a problem -- drug addiction, often aggravated by alcoholism or mental illness -- in which relapse is common.

While the number of graduates is relatively low, about 40% of those referred are making progress in beating their addiction, Shulman said.

"It is working. We've had successful graduates, and we are meeting statewide averages," she said. "It may not be working for 100% of them, but if it is working for 40% of them, that is 40% who are no longer doing drugs and no longer are a cost to our prison system."

However, Dist. Atty. Greg Totten and Sheriff Bob Brooks have been openly critical. They say the diversion rules are lax and tracking of offenders is insufficient.

Administrators need to better track how many participants have been convicted of a new criminal offense while enrolled and maintain a breakdown of the crimes they have committed, said Chief Deputy Dist. Atty. Michael Frawley.

The county also should be reporting how many people are dropped from the program because they have used up the three chances, or strikes, allowed under the law, Frawley said.

"We have had people who tested dirty 10 or more times before they are brought to the attention of the court," he said. "They are out in the streets and using a lot."

Brooks suggested that recent spikes in property crimes in Ventura could be attributed to the new law. But Shulman and others dispute that, saying the correlation is unclear.

Statewide, counties have responded favorably to the effects of Proposition 36, said Steve Szalay, executive director of the California State Assn. of Counties.

Counties are treating more people than expected and are discovering that many have additional problems, such as mental illness or lack of job training, that stand in the way of recovery, Szalay said.

But overall, drug offenders are getting the treatment they need and are staying out of jail, he said.

"We think it's been a success," he said. "Given the structure put forth in the initiative, it's done quite well."

Though the initiative mandates that counties provide drug treatment, state funding is available only through 2006. UCLA researchers are conducting a five-year evaluation of the program, including potential cost savings.

In Ventura County, nonviolent drug offenders are referred to a Proposition 36 courtroom. Each morning, a legal team meets with Judge Barry Klopfer to determine the best course of treatment for each defendant.

The team is made up of a prosecutor, public defender, probation official and treatment provider. Klopfer, who helped Ventura County start its own drug court several years ago, said the collaborative approach helps him decide who really is interested in getting help and what kind of services they need.

"That part has been a tremendous success," Klopfer said. "We are much more able to make use of what has been learned about the individual and their performance, to differentiate between those struggling but working on it and those who simply are not interested."

The problem with the law is that it treats everyone as though they are equally motivated to change, the judge said.

That means that even if it is clear that someone is only going through the motions, Klopfer must still give the offender three chances before terminating probation.

Some mechanisms to measure an offender's readiness to kick addiction would help keep out those who really don't want treatment, Klopfer said. And in an era of tight budgets, that might make sense, he said.

"I want to provide treatment where the taxpayers, the citizens, are going to get the most for their money," the judge said. "If you want to call that cherry-picking, go ahead. But we make those judgments in our lives every day."

Shannon Corpuz, 35, agreed that motivation is crucial.

Corpuz, a Ventura painter, told Ventura County supervisors that, when he was first referred to the program for abusing methamphetamine, he didn't think he had anything to learn.

After completing 12 months of treatment, he was drug-free for the first time in 12 years and has remained so for two years, he said.

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