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No jail for users

PROPOSITION 36, the voter initiative that mandated treatment instead of jail for drug users, is under funding pressure from Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and under fire from critics who say the program is failing. A Times study showed that nearly half of those sentenced never complete their treatment regimen and that more than a quarter fail to even show up for rehab. A recently released UCLA study showed that even more drug users are rearrested now than was the case before voters adopted the experiment in 2000.

There’s not much point running a rehab program if no one shows up for treatment. Schwarzenegger, to his credit, says he wants to increase participation. But he also wants to slash funding and return a dose of jail to treatment protocol. That’s the wrong way to go.

The UCLA study flagged numerous shortcomings in Proposition 36, most of which point to a need for longer, more intensive treatment. That means more funding, not less. It makes no sense to expect that an offender with a lifelong drug problem will drop into rehab and emerge three months later completely free of the habit and ready to start life over. It’s encouraging, in fact, that as many as 25% of offenders ordered into rehab in lieu of jail completed their course of treatment. That qualified success suggests that offenders need to get to rehab quicker, for longer, and with follow-up monitoring, which is now nonexistent.

Schwarzenegger instead is cutting funding from this year’s $120 million to a proposed $60 million in the coming budget. Or even nothing, if offenders continue to shirk their programs or re-offend. Instead, the governor wants to put the money in a parallel program, one that currently supplements counties that spend all of their Proposition 36 allocation. But that program comes with prescriptions, such as jail, that directly contradict the intent of voters. Californians have reasonably concluded that incarceration is no longer a tenable treatment for drug addiction. This is a conclusion the governor may not ignore.

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There are those who insist that only the threat of jail will bring an addict the necessary moment of clarity and spur him or her to show up for treatment. For some, that may be the case. Voters did not put jail out of reach -- the initiative gives an offender three chances. But the governor is wrong to introduce jail back into the mix earlier and to threaten an innovative program that is showing real progress.


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