A Better Approach to Drug Offenders

New York Times, 26 Oct. 2000

Come November, California voters will face Proposition 36, a measure that would dramatically change public policy on how drug offenders are handled in the criminal justice system. According to recent polls, Californians favor this measure, as well they should. The measure may also cause other states, including New York, to reform punitive drug laws that have failed to curb addiction or reduce drug-related crime.

Proposition 36 would sentence addicts convicted of simple drug possession to court-supervised treatment instead of prison, and provide $120 million a year for treatment programs. This treatment approach would not apply to individuals convicted of the sale or manufacture or possession for sale of illegal drugs. Nor would it apply to offenders convicted of a second crime during the same court proceeding. In addition, individuals who fail in treatment programs could be sent to prison under existing laws.

California, like the rest of the country, has experienced a ballooning prison population, caused in part by a big increase in drug offenders. More than 12,000 people are sent to California state prisons annually for drug possession alone.

Regrettably, however, the vast majority of these offenders receive no treatment while they are incarcerated, and after release many are driven by their addiction to commit more crimes. The cost of incarceration is about $24,000 a year, compared with $4,000 for treatment.

The investment in treatment could pay big dividends. In a few years, according to the state's analysis, the measure will probably result in net savings of $100 million to $150 million annually from lower prison operation costs. The state is also likely to save between $450 million and $550 million over the long term in lower prison construction costs.

Proposition 36's opponents are worried that judges would have too little power to impose prison time on recalcitrant drug abusers. But the California measure is stricter than a similar measure approved by voters in Arizona in 1996. Preliminary studies of Arizona's experience suggest that more than half the offenders who successfully completed treatment stayed drug-free.

California and the nation have spent the past two decades waging a drug war at an enormous financial and human cost. It is time to try treatment for low-level offenders, as the warehousing approach has so clearly failed.

© 2000, New York Times