Pubdate: Mon, 13 Aug 2001
Source: Washington Post (DC)
Copyright: 2001 The Washington Post Company
Author: William Booth, Washington Post Staff Writer


In a dreary courtroom at the end of the hall, Crystal Davis shuffled her 
slippered feet, rearranged her shackles and mumbled to the judge, "Yes, 
your honor," as she pleaded guilty to possession of 0.02 grams -- a crumb 
- -- of cocaine.

In a few hours, Davis would be free from county jail. Whether she would be 
freed from the drugs that have brought havoc to her life is unknown.

But instead of serving months or years behind bars, the 29-year-old crack 
cocaine user would be ordered to attend five to 10 hours a week of group 
therapy, individual counseling and 12-step study classes.

California, known for its strict three-strikes penalties and its prison 
construction spree, has made a U-turn in the war on drugs. The felons are 
now patients.

Despite widespread opposition by the state's political leadership, voters 
last year passed Proposition 36, and starting July 1, all people convicted 
of simple drug use or drug possession -- even for the hardest substances, 
such as heroin and cocaine -- were no longer sent to jail, but instead had 
to be released and offered drug treatment.

It is estimated that 36,000 drug users a year -- and perhaps many, many 
more -- will be diverted from jail to treatment, enough to delay the 
construction of at least two new state prisons.

The money saved on incarceration will be spent on rehabilitation, making 
dollars available for the first time for treatment on demand -- about $120 
million a year.

Although drugs have certainly not been legalized in California, drug users 
have essentially been decriminalized.

With the exception of Arizona, which passed a similar measure requiring 
treatment instead of jail in 1998, no state has more lenient drug use and 
drug possession laws than California. While other states and cities have 
adopted "drug courts," where some drug offenders are diverted from jail to 
treatment, the California experiment is being played out on a grand scale.

"It's a complete revolution," said Dave Fratello, one of the authors of 
Proposition 36. "We've changed the way drug abusers are seen by the system. 
Before, some people got some treatment. Now, everybody gets treatment, even 
the most hopeless cases."

Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Michael Tynan agrees: The system has been 
profoundly altered. "People who went to jail or prison last month are now 
going back into the community and hopefully into drug treatment," he said 
in an interview in July. "The people have spoken. They wanted us to try 
something else."

Outside a courtroom recently, a drug defendant who had just begun treatment 
under Proposition 36 and who asked that his name not be used, was 
enthusiastic about the new law, but also realistic.

"For me? I've used on and off for 10 years," said the cocaine abuser in his 
thirties, who said he worked as a mechanic. "I've been sober and then I 
used again. I can stay clean. But some of these other people? They're 
junkies, man, and crack heads, they live on the streets, and nobody is 
going to take their drugs away."

Then he hesitated. "But you know? Maybe they might clean up their act. They 
deserve a chance, and it's not any worse than sending them to prison."

No one knows how successful Crystal Davis or any of the other tens of 
thousands of convicted drug users will be. Critics of Proposition 36 worry 
that the already overtaxed criminal justice system and community treatment 
centers will be overwhelmed, that committed addicts will resist help and 
abuse their freedom, and that not nearly enough money has been appropriated 
for such things as drug testing or residential treatment, which some 
hard-core users might need.

The experiment will be closely watched, as the backers of Proposition 36 
are currently polling and working to put similar proposals before the 
voters in Florida, Ohio, Michigan and Missouri. Support for the drug reform 
measures has come from three wealthy men: financier George Soros, 
University of Phoenix founder John Sperling and insurer Peter Lewis.

An early examination of the implementation of Proposition 36 in Los 
Angeles, which has the largest addicted population in the state, is revealing.

Crystal Davis was arrested for possessing cocaine while she was on 
probation for an earlier drug conviction, the possession of a crack pipe. A 
presentence report written by the probation office before Proposition 36 
took effect recommended that Davis, who has a long criminal record of drug 
charges, be sent to state prison.

Her attorney, public defender John Alan, assumed that before Proposition 
36, his client would have been sentenced to a minimum of six months in 
county jail. "She probably would not have gotten the maximum, but you never 
know," Alan said.

Los Angeles County Superior Court Commissioner Ronald Rose, who presided 
over her case, said later that a defendant such as Davis, with a long 
history of drug convictions and a demonstrated unwillingness to pursue 
treatment, would have definitely gotten county jail time, perhaps even a 
year or two in prison.

"I believe you can stop using drugs," Rose told her at her hearing. "It's 
going to be a very, very difficult thing. But you can do it, and we are 
here to help you."

Rose ordered Davis and two other drug defendants, who were all shackled 
together, to appear at the Homeless Health Care center near downtown Los 
Angeles within 24 hours to meet with their probation officer and undergo 
evaluation to decide the appropriate level of treatment. Davis will be on 
probation for three years and will likely be ordered, after evaluations, to 
undergo outpatient drug treatment for nine months.

"All three of you are going to be released," Rose said. "The odds are that 
one of you isn't going to make it, and then you'll be going to state 
prison." And then they were led away by the bailiff, due back in court in 
three weeks to have their progress evaluated.

A report done for the California legislature last year estimated that a 
total of 36,000 people would be diverted from jails to treatment each year 
under Proposition 36. But that number might prove to be conservative.

In Los Angeles, a task force assembled to implement Proposition 36 
estimated that 14,000 to 20,000 offenders in Los Angeles County alone would 
be eligible for treatment.

To handle this volume, the county arranged for 18 judges to hear nothing 
but Proposition 36 cases. Defendants who are deemed eligible -- meaning 
they have not committed any violent crimes in the last five years -- and 
who plead guilty or are convicted of drug use or possession, are released 
and placed on probation, usually for three years.

Their first step is to attend a Community Assessment Service Center, like 
Homeless Health Care or Tarzana Treatment Center.

"I sit down with them, explain how it works and then off they go," said 
probation officer Ray Causly, who works at Tarzana. "After that, my contact 
with them is minimal." From there, they move down the hall into a treatment 

Before Proposition 36, Causly would meet with drug offenders on probation 
three or four times a month. "Now, that's all handled by counselors," he 
said. Asked whether he thought the new approach, described by a probation 
official as "kinder and gentler," would work, Causly said, "I give it a 
50-50 chance. What we've done is decriminalize the individual, offer them 
help, and then step back and let treatment do its thing, and see if it works."

In the past, some offenders were sent to drug courts, which offered 
treatment instead of jail time. The success rate was high in Los Angeles, 
with as many as seven of 10 abusers completing their programs and staying 
clean. But the number of people who went through drug court was small -- 
only about 5 percent of the eligible drug defendants in Los Angeles -- and 
preselected for potential success by judges and prosecutors.

Now, everybody is offered treatment -- even users with dozens of drug 
arrests. Some judges and prosecutors worry that the toughest addicts will 
simply refuse treatment.

At the Tarzana center, counselor Monica Weil is the first person the 
Proposition 36 clients see after the probation officer. She administers a 
standard test, the Addiction Severity Index, which measures how much 
treatment a client should have. An occasional cocaine user, who has a job 
and a supportive environment, would be classified as a Level One. Weil 
estimates that about 80 percent of the Proposition 36 clients would be 
Level Ones.

A crack addict living on the streets, with multiple arrests and perhaps a 
psychiatric disorder as well, would be considered a Level Three.

Treatment for a Level One would entail four or five one-hour meetings a 
week for three months, while treatment for Level Three addicts might 
include several days of detoxification, followed by a month of residential 
treatment and then 10 hours of meetings a week for nine months.

There was widespread concern before Proposition 36 became law that the 
existing treatment centers would be overwhelmed, but that has not been the 
case in Los Angeles. The centers are busier, and they are scrambling to 
hire more counselors, but they are managing their growing caseload.

If the convicted users fail to stay sober, and stumble in their recovery, 
the court gives them another chance. If they fail again? They are given yet 
another chance. On their third strike, they can be sent to jail or prison.

"There is still a carrot and a stick," probation officer Causly said. "It 
just takes a lot longer before we pull out the stick."

Crucial to the treatment, say the judges, probation officers and many 
counselors, is money for repeated, random drug testing -- funds that have 
not yet been appropriated.

"Trust only takes you so far. Then you want to test them. A lot," said Ken 
Bachrach, clinical director at the Tarzana Treatment Center. "That is what 
this program is. Treatment. Treatment takes time. People screw up. They 
fail. They try again. The public should understand. They need to be 
patient. Because this is addiction we're talking about."
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