Nation is Watching California's Proposition 36 Experiment
DEBBIE ELLIOTT, host:
Back in 2000, California voters decided to offer non-violent drug offenders a choice, jail or probation and rehab. Now nearly all sides praise the measure they passed, Proposition 36, but voters secured funding only for five years. That funding runs out next month, so Californians are now reviewing Prop 36. Rachel Myrow of member station KPCC of Los Angeles has our report.
RACHEL MYROW reporting:
There are no locks on the doors at Phoenix House, an adult residential drug treatment center southeast of downtown Los Angeles. But twenty-six-year-old Valarie Ubara(ph), like the other women who live here, doesn't need bars to hold her in.
Ms. VALARIE UBARA (Resident, Phoenix House): There has been a couple of (unintelligible) where I wanted to leave. I've never been in prison and I don't want to go.
MYROW: Ubara says she's been using alcohol or pot most of her life. Under Proposition 36, Ubara had three chances to clean up and avoid prison. She almost used them all. Ubara gave up on an out-patient program and then a sober living facility before landing at Phoenix House.
Ms. UBARA: I mean I might not have got it the first time and I might not have got it the second time, but I am getting it the third time and I think it's really good for people who do want to change. It does help, you know, it does help.
MYROW: California isn't the first state to experiment with a public health approach to drug addiction, but the scale of the Proposition 36 program here dwarfs anything seen in Arizona or Hawaii. At least so far. In June the voter approved funding runs out. Prop. 36 has to get in line with all the other programs clamoring for a place in California's budget. Many state agencies see this as a tempting opportunity to tinker with 36. Cathy Jett heads California's Department of Alcohol and Drug Programs.
Ms. CATHY JETT (California Department of Alcohol and Drug Programs): The program is a good program, but I don't think you would hear law enforcement and even a large portion of treatment say that we're doing the best job that we could do.
MYROW: For one thing, Jett wants to introduce a tool used by California's drug court. It's called flash incarceration, in which judges can order a short jail stay for treatment-resistant addicts. Jett's got lots of company, including the governor, judges, and, she says, most treatment providers.
Ms. JETT: Roughly about 30 percent of the people that go into Proposition 36 never show up for treatment. Offenders need to be held accountable if they don't show up.
MYROW: But the guy who co-wrote the ballot measure six years ago, Dave Fratello of the California Campaign for New Drug Policies, says offenders are held accountable. If addicts don't show, eventually they go to prison. Furthermore, Fratello says, he'll sue if the state adopts flash incarceration.
Mr. DAVE FRATELLO (California Campaign for New Drug Policies): The public voted treatment instead of jail, so when you say jail during treatment should be part of Prop. 36, you're pretty directly violating the intent and the structure of Prop. 36.
MYROW: Fratello notes the Prop. 36 population has an average completion rate statewide of 34 percent, which is comparable with other drug-diversion programs. Even folks who fail treatment, Fratello says, are learning something.
Mr. FRATELLO: They're reducing their drug use. They're staying out of crime, and they're laying the groundwork for getting off drugs eventually. That's a good investment, too.
MYROW: He's got the stats to prove it. Proposition 36 included a mandate and funding for a statewide cost-benefit study. UCLA researchers found California saved more than $800 million over five years by treating addicts rather than imprisoning them. UCLA economist Angela Hawken is one of the study's co-authors.
Professor ANGELA HAWKEN (UCLA): We had huge sample sizes, which is why the 30 other states who are considering similar legislation will now look to California, and this will be the treatment study.
MYROW: The question for Sacramento lawmakers now is how much to invest in the program this coming year. For NPR News, I'm Rachel Myrow in Los Angeles.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.