- The Washington Times - Monday, July 16, 2001

LOS ANGELES — About 50,000 or more nonviolent drug offenders will not be going to jail every year as a result of a voters' initiative Californians passed last fall.
Proposition 36 took effect July 1, amid warnings from prosecutors and drug-treatment programs that the nation's largest state doesn't have sufficient facilities or personnel to handle a flood of new drug rehabilitation patients who would formerly have done prison time for their offenses.
Meanwhile, the mega-millionaire backers who funded the campaign for Proposition 36 are not deterred: They are pushing on with drives for similar laws in several other states. The money men — New York financier George Soros, Cleveland insurance mogul Peter Lewis and University of Phoenix founder John Sperling — spent more than $3.5 million pushing Proposition 36. Before that, they spent more than $5 million backing California's 1996 Proposition 215, which has led to enormous confusion by attempting to legalize medical marijuana. They plan to spend millions more to repeat their success in Florida, Michigan and Ohio.
In each state, says campaign manager Bill Zimmerman, the Santa Monica consultant who ran the Proposition 36 campaign in California, the rehab-not-prison propositions led by at least 20 points in recent private polls.
"We're going to rub this in the noses of Congress and the administration," said Mr. Sperling. "The American people realize the drug war is a failure and something has to be done about it. We're going to keep going to the initiative process until the politicians start listening."
Opponents claim the three are simply furthering their personal agendas.
"It's dangerous for our democracy when very wealthy people from out of state can put measures on the ballot, run very misleading ads and succeed in getting the laws changed," said Calvina Fay, executive director of Drug-Free America Foundation, a Florida group that helped fight the California proposition.
So far, it appears the toughest battle over next year's round of drug-treatment propositions may come in Florida, where Republican Gov. Jeb Bush opposes the measure and it is likely potential Democratic opponent Janet Reno, the former attorney general, also will.
Mr. Bush's drug policy director, James McDonough, has already begun campaigning against his state's version of the measure, calling it "a hoax on the citizens of Florida."
While campaigns take shape elsewhere, the California justice system may soon find itself flooded with convicted offenders who cannot go to prison, but can't find spots in accredited residential rehab programs, either. Many will likely end up either as outpatients or simply on probation.
The first prominent figure to exploit this situation is former Oakland Raider quarterback Todd Marinovich, now the signal caller of the Los Angeles Avengers arena football team. Mr. Marinovich on Monday requested that a judge convict him of felony heroin possession.
Exact terms of his rehab won't be determined until August.
Previously, he had fought the charges in an effort to avoid jail time.
"There are a lot of profound problems," said Bob Mimura, director of the Criminal Justice Coordinating Committee of Los Angeles County. His county has nowhere near enough treatment centers or counseling centers to handle the estimated 20,000 nonviolent offenders who will emerge from the local court system this year.
"I hate to say the sky is falling, but there are going to be problems, big problems," he said.
"The biggest problem is that the number of people involved in Proposition 36 as defendants was grossly underestimated and the money is just not going to be there," said Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Michael Tynan.
State officials earmarked at least $175 million for handling Proposition 36 cases, with much of the money going for additional courtrooms, prosecutors and public defenders.
That's not enough and it may be at least partially misdirected, warn some administrators.
They note that even before Proposition 36 passed, California was severely short of drug counselors. They also warn that the state has no drug testing system in place for handling urine samples from convicted offenders in nonresidential rehab programs.
State Senate President John Burton, San Francisco Democrat, says legislators will shortly pass a bill to provide as much as $18 million for testing, but no one knows when that money will arrive or how soon a testing system will be in place.
Meanwhile, an independent study last week concluded that California's largest counties are not ready for the new treatment-first sentencing regimen.
The Lindesmith Center-Drug Policy Foundation said counties like San Diego, San Bernardino and Sacramento are refusing to budget enough money for rehabilitation.
"They have designed plans that are likely to fail," said the report. "In these places, there is no commitment to quality treatment."
But San Bernardino County, for one, insists it has a good plan in place.
"The people who wrote this don't think the courts or law enforcement should be involved in the drug problem anymore," said county spokesman David Wert. "But we have found that treatment is only successful if defendants know they will face legal consequences if they don't cooperate."
None of this fazes the original financial backers of Proposition 36. "California will work out the rough spots, and then we'll see less recidivism due to the treatment," said a spokesman for Mr. Zimmerman. "This is necessary change that will eventually come everywhere."

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