Despite Prop. 36 Approval, Some Say Jail is Necessary for Some Addicts
Many law enforcement officials and drug treatment professionals have expressed concern that removal of the threat of jail time for drug offenders under the recently approved Proposition 36 will end a powerful incentive for drug users to "straighten out," the Philadelphia Inquirer reports. The ballot initiative, which 61% of California voters approved last November, calls for most non-violent drug users and possessors to enter drug treatment programs instead of jails. Supporters have hailed Proposition 36 as recognition that drug use is a "public health problem, not a criminal one." But some who work with drug offenders believe that "serious consequences -- specifically, jail time -- often are the only things that force addicts to straighten out," according to the Inquirer. Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Stephen Marcus, who heads the county's "first and largest drug court," said that the threat of "stiff penalties" is sometimes necessary to help drug addicts recover. Chris Canter, director of the Walden House Foundation and a former amphetamine addict, said that the prospect of jail was what motivated him to seek treatment. "I remember wanting to leave the program. But then I'd think of the judge saying, 'Give me one opportunity and you're gone.' I should thank that judge. It was the best thing that ever happened to me," he said. Proposition 36 takes effect July 1 (Lelyveld, Philadelphia Inquirer, 12/26/00).
- Californians should give Proposition 36 some time before judging its success, as the "biggest mistake would be to view the new law as a cure-all for drug problems and to spin problems and failures as evidence that the new approach can't work," an Orange County Register editorial states. The editorial notes that there are several potential obstacles to successfully implementing the initiative, including whether enough treatment facilities can be constructed to care for the 36,000 people projected to be "diverted from jail under the new policy," whether these diverted drug offenders will overburden the state's probation system and whether the lack of funding for drug tests will serve as an obstacle to promoting recovery for addicts. The editorial concludes, "Taken in conjunction with similar measures passed and decisions made in other states, [Proposition 36] could represent a turning point in the country's approach to drug use and addiction" (Orange Country Register, 12/31/00).
- The transition that California's criminal justice system will have to undergo to implement Proposition 36 "will not be ... easy, for reasons psychological as well as economic," Charles Lindner states in a Los Angeles Times op-ed. Lindner, former president of the Los Angeles Criminal Bar Association, foresees the following situations: Police officers, who currently view drug users as "bad guys," might enforce drug laws less frequently because "jail is not a legal sentencing option" or could "inflate" drug charges with other crimes to increase the chance that a user will go to jail. In addition, the lack of the threat of jail could cause drug offenders to not enter into plea bargains, thus creating a "backlog in endless small-time felony trials" for judges. And without additional funding for the probation department, "the drug treatment program envisioned in Proposition 36 will fail," Lindner concludes (Lindner, Los Angeles Times, 12/31/00).
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