Getting the Treatment

Proposition 36 is based on a noble idea: substituting drug treatment for prison sentences. But the measure needs practical help.

I've seen Lydia -- a woman whose warm, graceful manner belies her difficult life -- three times since we were children: once at a funeral, again at a wedding, and a third time when her stepfather died.

The first time was 15 years ago at a Colma graveside service for Lydia's brother Gary, my childhood best friend. His life had spiraled into drugs and alcohol before he died of AIDS.

Nine years later I saw Lydia's face at my sister's wedding. I stared perplexed for a long time -- too long, perhaps -- because this person looked the same age as Lydia when she and I were grammar-school classmates.

"This is Angela, Matt," Lydia's mother said. "She's Lydia's daughter."

Lydia was in jail, as she had been on and off during much of her addiction-plagued adult life, and couldn't attend the wedding. Lydia's mother had long since taken over Angela's upbringing.

The last time I saw Lydia was in her mother's living room, a couple of hours before her stepfather's funeral four months ago. Lydia smiled and said, "I only see you at funerals," in a tone that combined gentle humor and mild lament in such a way that I couldn't help but smile, too. Lydia had gotten out of jail the preceding Friday, having served her sentence on charges relating to substance abuse. During the graveside service Lydia petted Angela's hair so tenderly and earnestly, she seemed to know she'd only be out a short time. Last week I heard Lydia was in prison again.


There are few people in America who don't have a Lydia in their lives -- a basically decent person who's been crippled by addiction, who's been endlessly in and out of the criminal justice system, at least partly because of his or her inability to resist the call of mind-altering substances.

In an effort to deal humanely with this reality, last fall two-thirds of Californians supported Proposition 36, a ballot measure designed to send nonviolent drug offenders to medical treatment, rather than jail. Besides requiring that first- and second-time drug abusers be placed in treatment, the law also forces county governments to add new resources to drug treatment programs, so they can accommodate people who would have gone to jail or prison under previous law.

But like the dysfunctional addicts it aims to save, Proposition 36 appears to be spiraling toward disaster. As the July 1 date for the implementation of Proposition 36 nears, the measure's success is threatened by its own incompetent conception, a cynical governor, a money-soused Legislature, and county governments impoverished by 25 years of state profligacy.

Proposition 36 became law via the overused California ballot initiative process, an increasingly inept policy-making tool that gives us laws drafted for purposes of 30-second television spots, without sufficient thought about how they will work, or be enforced.

Proposition 36 will be carried out by California's impaired county governments, which, after being raped for a quarter of a century at the service of the voter-approved, utterly insane property-tax relief measure known as Proposition 13, may finally be bankrupted by the utterly sane, voter-approved Prop. 36.

Proposition 36 will be enforced by a dysfunctional governor, Gray Davis, who seeks to rob funds from existing drug treatment programs just as lower-level public officials seek to carry out a public mandate to expand drug-treatment programs.

And ironing out the rough edges of Proposition 36 lies in the hands of the California Legislature, which is so in thrall to moneyed interests -- interests that include, oh, say, electricity providers and prison guards, but definitely do not include addicts who need treatment -- that it is unlikely the additional money necessary to keep the measure from failing will be appropriated.


As counties gear up for implementation of Prop. 36, major problems have emerged across the governmental landscape:

- Gov. Gray Davis, who vigorously opposed the measure, is now seeking to cut $22 million from ordinary alcohol and drug treatment programs to pay for his electricity bailout. Much of this money now goes to programs for addicts who volunteer for treatment outside the criminal justice system. As the state, meanwhile, beefs up Prop. 36- oriented programs for people convicted of crimes, a bizarre situation could emerge in which the only way for an addict to receive treatment would be to commit a crime.

"We feel that's the message the governor's sending -- if you really want to get treatment, commit a crime and get arrested," says Tom Renfree, a lobbyist for the County Alcohol and Drug Program Administrator's Association of California.

- Though the measure was touted during last fall's campaign as saving the state money by reducing the need for new prisons and jails, the immediate reality is that many of California's 58 counties stand to be impoverished by Proposition 36. The $120 million that voters allocated to set up drug-treatment programs, beef up probation departments, and reconnoiter court systems will cover only a fraction of the real costs, county administrators around the state say. State Sen. John Burton said last year that he would sponsor legislation to make up the difference. It remains unclear whether he will ultimately succeed.

Butte County, one of California's poorest, is in a typical Prop. 36 fix. Funds provided by the measure will cover treatment for only 385 of the 600 addicts whom Butte County expects to treat next year. The county, located a three-hour drive north of San Francisco, already faces a $1.4 million budget shortfall. In previous years, budget deficits were covered by reducing library hours, by putting county staff on four-day workweeks, and by other cuts in county programs and services. It would now require an extra $17.5 million per year to provide a minimum level of services in Butte County, according to a 2000 state-sponsored study.

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