Saving Grace

Just a few Christmases ago, Gary M. was homeless, living in a tent in a canyon. Addicted to methamphetamine, he spent the holidays alone. This year, after two years in California's Proposition 36, the treatment-instead-of-incarceration initiative, Gary will be spending Christmas with his family. He has a full-time job, his own apartment and was able to buy toys for his grandchildren. These days, he babysits them often.

As the holidays approach, thousands of families like his – children, parents, husbands and wives – will spend the season with loved ones who are recovering from drug addiction. For many this will be the first Christmas they have shared in years. They are together because of the revolutionary provisions of Proposition 36.

Still, while there are thousands of success stories, Proposition 36 is not a silver bullet that can solve all of California's drug problems. A series of negative articles has come out recently highlighting researcher David Farabee's study, which concerns rearrest rates for a small sample of drug offenders enrolled in Proposition 36 treatment programs during the first six months of the initiative's implementation. Farabee's findings were that this group of Proposition 36 participants was more likely to be rearrested for nonviolent drug offenses than groups that accessed treatment through other programs – he found no difference in their rearrest rates for any other crimes.

Most of the articles neglected to offer any explanation for these findings. According to the official, state-sponsored evaluation of Proposition 36, conducted by Douglas Longshore of UCLA, Proposition 36 has extended access to treatment to tens of thousands of people who were not being reached by other treatment programs, 50 percent of whom have never had access to treatment before, and many of whom were severely addicted. Gary, for example, had been a drug user for 30 years before he got access to drug treatment for the first time through Proposition 36, at age 47.

The other programs that Farabee examined, which had fewer drug-related rearrests, included fewer clients and cherry-picked those candidates, most of whom had been users for significantly less time than those affected by Proposition 36. Farabee himself said that those rearrested were the severely addicted who had received outpatient rather than intensive residential treatment, which they needed – he called this "a recipe for recidivism." Treatment providers around the state agree that there are insufficient treatment options available to match appropriate treatment to client needs, including a shortage of residential facilities and methadone services for heroin users.

Like cigarette smokers, people who have long histories of addiction seldom kick the habit the first time they try. Treatment providers agree that relapse is often part of the struggle toward sobriety, and because of Proposition 36 close to 100,000 people have taken the first step on that path. Proposition 36's successes must not be undervalued: tens of thousands of people like Gary M. have completed treatment, people who would otherwise likely be in jail, or, in his own words, "I would have been dead."

Proposition 36 opened the door for treatment in a way that drug courts and other diversion programs never could do – every person who qualifies has the right to access treatment, absent any discrimination on the part of drug court judges and prosecutors to keep them out. Proposition 36, for the first time, leaves treatment decisions in the hands of treatment professionals, trained to do the job.

Proposition 36 also saves money. While an official cost-saving analysis by UCLA will not be released until next year, our estimates indicate that the savings are in the hundreds of millions of dollars per year: prison costs $31,000 per person per year, compared to an approximately $3,200 per client for Proposition 36 participants. Proposition 36 also costs much less than drug courts.

Farabee recommends more appropriate treatment options for people in the Proposition 36 system. We agree. Yes, we need more money for treatment. And yes, we would like for people to have more opportunities to succeed at treatment. But Proposition 36 is the single most promising avenue to help direct people, like Gary, out of the cycle of drug addiction and prison and into productive, healthy lives.

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