The plague of alcohol and drug abuse has fallen upon Santa Cruz County as it has fallen upon the rest of California. Though program providers scurry around, bouncing from case to case in what amounts to a sea of triaged decision-making, the number of people who need — and want — drug or alcohol treatment far outstrips the ability of county providers to help them.
The result of not being able to provide recovery services to all who want them has led to one undeniable fact: Many of those who need and who could benefit from treatment end up behind bars.
According to the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice in San Francisco, over the past two decades the number of drug offenders who make up California prison populations has increased by a factor of 25! California can now boast the highest ratio of drug-offender incarcerations in the entire country. More even than Texas.
Since the cost of housing a drug offender in a California prison (approximately $46,000 per year) is considerably greater than the cost of treating an offender’s addiction, there’s a social and fiscal disconnect that has recently come under the microscope. This November, voters will have an opportunity to correct this inequity, and in the process reduce the overcrowded conditions in California prisons and eliminate the short-term need to build more of them.
The Nonviolent Offender Rehabilitation Act — Proposition 5 on this November’s ballot — addresses these inequities. The Drug Policy Alliance Network (www.Prop5yes.com) says NORA’s passage will expand treatment for nonviolent offenders, commit funding for treatment of prisoners and parolees, reduce criminal penalties for marijuana possession, and provide funds for youth treatment — where there previously were none.
According to the nonpartisan Legislative Analyst’s Office, the approximately $1 billion needed annually to fund NORA will be offset by a similar or greater amount saved in parolee-monitoring and prisoner-housing costs. The LAO also projects a savings to taxpayers of $2.5 billion over several years in prison-construction costs.
Locally, according to county program administrators, NORA’s passage is expected to provide $4 million in treatment funding. That will save at least one financially troubled program from extinction and go a long way in helping balance the “supply and demand” curve for drug abusers and providers.
So far, however, law enforcement and Drug Court officials have not warmed to NORA. The Web site www.NoOnProposition5.com provides counter talking points and is funded by the California Narcotic Officers’ Association and a southern California Native American Casino.
Their talking points are quite inflammatory, including, “(NORA) provides a way for those who kill or maim others while under the influence to avoid criminal prosecution… shortens parole for methamphetamine dealers and other drug felons from three years – to just six months … (provides) a get-out-of-jail-free card to defendants charged with crimes including domestic violence, child abuse, mortgage fraud, identity theft, vehicular manslaughter, insurance fraud and auto theft, letting them effectively escape criminal prosecution altogether.” Pretty strong stuff, but not supported by the text of the proposition. In a recent editorial, the L.A. Times claimed that judges would be “unable to jail someone ... as long as the perpetrator swore that drugs made him do it.” Also, not supported.
Writing in response to these assertions, the proposition’s authors insist that only perpetrators of nonviolent crimes would be eligible for participation in treatment diversion. Furthermore, the hands of judges are not tied at all. They will make the decision to place a defendant in a diversion program and no one will qualify automatically. Decisions about whether a substance abuse problem contributed to a non-drug-related offense will be completely within the judge’s discretion. The key word in the proposition is “eligible.” Defendants in nonviolent criminal cases will be “eligible” for diversion — (Penal Code 1210.2 (a)(3)). There is no mandate.
Starting Monday, Oct. 13 at 6 p.m. and continuing throughout the week on Channels 26 and 72, Community Television of Santa Cruz County will air a half-hour program that I produced titled NORA — the Incarceration Alternative (call 425-8848 for additional showtimes). Experts on drug and alcohol rehabilitation David True of the Community Rehabilitation Project, Will O’Sullivan of Community Recovery Services and Jan Tice, the former executive director of Janus of Santa Cruz will discuss the merits of NORA.
I encourage readers to look into both sides of this proposition. A thorough, 10-page analysis is provided in the Official Voter Information Guide mailed to every registered voter by the Secretary of State’s office. And see what local treatment experts say about Proposition 5 by watching NORA — the Incarceration Alternative on Community TV.
Peter Nichols is the chairman of the Santa Cruz County Alcohol and Drug Abuse Commission. The opinions of columnists are not necessarily those of the Register-Pajaronian.
(Published in 10/7/08 edition)
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