Drug Court defendants get that. Proposition 36 defendants won’t. Ironically, for clients who fail the standards of Proposition 36, the prescribed penalties can mount quickly — sometimes at the same pace as under current statutes. The new law includes two alternatives, both versions of a “three
strikes” concept. Offenders who successfully pass through a treatment, get arrested and convicted again, complete treatment again and then get arrested a third time may be incarcerated for up to 30 days (though there is some controversy as to whether they could get a longer term). But defendants who on their first Proposition 36 conviction fail their treatment program three times before completing it at all can be sentenced to as long as three years.
What’s apparent from the outset is that Proposition 36 presents an imposed solution with little room for flexibility, while the Drug Courts developed incrementally, as an organic and personal response by judges to the drug problem that manifested itself in their courtrooms every day.
The first Drug Courts were created in the 1980s, at the height of the Reagan-era War on Drugs, and they did not much resemble the Drug Court model that exists today. A rash of mandatory-sentencing laws in states across the country, coupled with the crack-cocaine outbreak and the mood of the times, resulted in a court system overloaded with newly minted criminals. From 1980 to 1995, arrests of adults for drug offenses jumped an eye-popping 273 percent, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics.
The point of the early Drug Courts was to ease the stress on a justice system suddenly inundated with drug defendants, many arrested for minor, nonviolent violations such as possession. These courts helped thin the dockets, but they didn’t stop the same people turning up in court again and again, arrested for drug-related crimes.
The Dade County, Florida, Drug Court in Miami was the first to try solving the more important problem of how to get people off drugs. Under pioneering Judge Stanley Goldstein, the court offered certain drug addicts treatment as an alternative to jail. The program was composed of therapy, counseling and, interestingly, acupuncture, which apparently can reduce craving for drugs.
The catch was that this treatment would be monitored and supervised by the court. Goldstein’s program proved strict and effective. Courts in Northern California, Oregon, Michigan and Florida emulated the Miami experiment and found that the drug addicts who went through the court-supervised treatment program got arrested again much less frequently, and those who did took longer to do so.
By 1994, there were 21 Drug Courts scattered across the country, including one in Los Angeles County. That same year, judges, attorneys, treatment providers and probation officers from around the country formed the National Association of Drug Court Professionals. California had 47 Drug Courts by 1997 and has 102 today. By October 2000, there were 585 in 47 states, with 465 more in development.
Proposition 36 has no real track record, but the law does have one precedent. In 1996, Arizona voters approved a similar measure, the Drug Medicalization, Prevention and Control Act — known somewhat more palatably as “Proposition 200.” The Arizona law funds drug treatment for low-level offenders from a liquor tax, rather than from the state’s general fund, which is where Proposition 36 gets its money. Otherwise, the goals are pretty much the same: to channel nonviolent drug offenders into treatment rather than jail.
In 1999, the Arizona Supreme Court issued a “report card” on Proposition 200. The court found that of the 2,622 adults who entered the Proposition 200 program in fiscal 1998, 35.5 percent, or 932, completed a treatment program. Of those, 61.1 percent completed their programs “successfully.” That means they didn’t “abscond, reoffend or have a petition to revoke filed.”
Whether 61.1 percent of 35.5 percent constitutes a smashing success is open to question.
The court did find that 76.3 percent of participants in Proposition 200 programs — more than three out of four — passed urinalysis tests, indicating that they were “drug free,” at least during fiscal 1998.
Skipping down to the bottom line, the report card figured that the program saved the state of Arizona over $2.5 million in prison and court costs.
The only other preview of how Proposition 36 may pan out comes from Orange County, where the court system has been running a pilot program, essentially a dry run of Proposition 36, since March. Orange County Drug Court Administrator Ralph Rodgers says that, while the pilot has operated without state money, which won’t come until July 1, and uses only three treatment providers rather than the “I don’t know how many” that will be used once the law takes effect, it has helped Orange County courts anticipate some surprises.
“We found that, overall, a very addicted population seems to be coming into Proposition 36,” says Rodgers. “It’s not a lightweight population. We thought we’d be getting people from all levels of addiction, but we found that it was heavier on the more addicted side.”
Rodgers also says that Proposition 36 drew “people that had pretty severe prior criminal histories. That’s not something we saw as much with Drug Court.”
What will become of the Drug Courts, one of the few successes in this country’s War on Drugs, once Proposition 36 takes effect? Abrahamson says they won’t disappear, but they will change their focus.