By Michael Goldstein
By Dennis Romero
By Sarah Fenske
By Matthew Mullins
By Patrick Range McDonald
By LA Weekly
By Dennis Romero
By Simone Wilson
Then comes a string of failures to appear — in all, six out of 16 defendants will fail to show up this morning, numbers that reflect both downtown L.A.’s transient population and lack of funding.
Money for Prop. 36 treatment is running short in L.A. County — particularly with state and county cutbacks decimating already underfunded social programs. The simple fact is that the criminal-justice system in Los Angeles is so massive that it’s a gargantuan task to make any reform, especially one so deep-reaching.
Los Angeles County has nine court branches, 20 subbranches, 633 deputy public defenders and more than 700 assistant D.A.’s. It’s been difficult getting everyone working on the same page, just logistically.
At first, treatment providers were limited to those who already had contracts with the county, so there simply were not enough treatment slots available for those eligible, causing a huge backlog. Without immediate intervention, many of the addicts started using again as soon as they hit the street. It took a long time for the county to go through the assessment process and grant additional contracts.
Up until last October, parolees could not be enrolled in Prop. 36 programs without the approval of the state Board of Prison Terms — a long delay that sometimes meant defendants were sent back to state prison because it took too long to get an approval. The procedure has now been changed so that the parole agent of record can approve their placement into the programs.
In downtown L.A., there’s been an additional problem. Many of those eligible for treatment live on Skid Row — the homeless, crackheads, winos, junkies, people with AIDS. Getting them into and maintaining them in treatment has been a frustrating and strangely unanticipated problem.
L.A. officials had been expecting a large number of recreational users to enroll in programs, according to Lael Rubin, the special counsel in charge of Prop. 36 for the D.A.’s office. Instead, most have turned out to be the heavily addicted, the very people who require the longest, most expensive treatment: months in a residential facility instead of an outpatient 12-step program. The result, says Rubin, is that programs for serious addicts are getting watered down, the waiting lists are growing longer, and fewer people are receiving effective treatment.
The system set up by Prop. 36 for the Pershing Square area seems at times to have been designed on Mars. Clients sifting through dumpsters for food were expected to navigate through a series of complex tasks. After getting assigned to an assessment center, they’d have to call, make an appointment, figure out how to get to the center, find it and be on time. Recently the downtown court has tried to address the problem by having an assessment counselor at the courthouse three days a week so that a client can immediately be assigned to treatment.
Despite the program’s flaws, L.A. County’s Department of Health Services Alcohol and Drug Program Administration has declared Prop. 36 “a success.” In 2001-2002, 8,300 defendants were “sentenced to Prop. 36 treatment services,” and nearly 6,400 were placed in treatment.
Statewide there are similar promising results. The number of state prisoners serving time for drug possession dropped during Prop. 36’s first year, from about 19,700 at the end of 2000 to 15,800 by December 31, 2001 — a drop of almost 4,000. (This number excludes parolees re-arrested for testing dirty. Prop. 36 does not apply to them.)
I asked Public Defender Mark Lessem, Nancy Chand’s supervisor, to evaluate Prop. 36. “Look,” he said, “I don’t know how to gauge success. We see people changing their lives all the time in our treatment programs. But you’re dealing with addiction here. People are going to fail. But there’s no question that treatment works, and when those people do well, we’re saving money — it costs about $25,000 a year to incarcerate someone, four to ten thousand for treatment. They’re not out there any longer committing burglaries or hooking on the streets, and are not likely to be incarcerated again. Is that success?”
One of the key players behind the drug-reform movement has been a tall, lanky Santa Monica–based political consultant and longtime progressive political activist named Bill Zimmerman, who views America’s drug crusade as “just another war, this one directed at America’s poor and unemployed.”
While some courageous judges were quietly but tenaciously working on the inside to change drug policy, Zimmerman and his colleagues in the drug-reform movement began working from the outside.
In 1996, Zimmerman’s group, the Campaign for New Drug Policies (CNDP), sponsored America’s first successful marijuana initiative, California’s Proposition 215, which allowed physicians to prescribe the drug to the seriously ill. From 1996 to last November’s election, CNDP and its New York–based sister organization, the Lindesmith Drug Policy Center, won 12 of the 13 ballot initiatives they had sponsored. Most of them were funded by the billionaire financier and social reformer George Soros, his fellow billionaire Peter Lewis, and John Sperling, the founder of Phoenix University.
Zimmerman and his colleagues (who usually require at least a 60 percent positive rating in their polls before going ahead) thus had plenty of experience when they authored Prop. 36. “You have to draft something that people are willing to support,” Zimmerman told me. “With Proposition 36, for example, giving people more than two chances at treatment was a breaking point for the voters we polled. If we had written the law with more than two chances, we would have lost significant support. There’s no point in spending millions of dollars on an initiative that’s going to lose.”
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