- The Washington Times - Saturday, November 4, 2000

“If it were your child, you'd prefer treatment over jail.” That simple statement, made by Rep. Tom Campbell, R-Campbell, in a debate with Sen. Dianne Feinstein last month, is the essence as to why voters should pass Proposition 36, the ballot measure that would mandate treatment over incarceration for most people convicted of drug possession.

In the official ballot argument, opponents argue that Proposition 36 “decriminalizes heroin and other hard drugs.” Not true. Drug dealers would remain subject to the same tough state laws. Offenders who repeatedly wash out of treatment would be jailed. Many ex-cons with a violent or serious felony on their record would be subject to prison if they're caught possessing drugs. People who commit crimes on drugs can be jailed for those crimes.

But most users won't go to jail or prison. The nonpartisan legislative analyst estimates that if 36 passes, each year as many as 36,000 nonviolent drug offenders would enter treatment programs instead of cells. This is as it should be. Incarcerating individuals to save them from self-destructive behavior does not make sense. The punishment exceeds the crime.

The Yes on 36 folks argue that it is better to treat drug users than to have them spend time with hardened criminals. The No on 36 folks tend to agree, but argue that the threat of incarceration is key to helping chronic addicts get and stay clean. “What does work requires sanctions, carrots and sticks, and it requires drug testing and frequent reviews and accountability,” explained Judge Stephen V. Manley, president of the California Association of Drug Court Professionals.

Manley also fears that despite the measure's promise to set aside $120 million annually for drug treatment programs, judges won't have the leverage — the threat of prison time — to force addicts into residential treatment programs.

“In the first 30 days, people are not convinced that they need to be in a program,” explained Johnnie Lewis of the successful SISTER drug treatment program in Oakland. If drug courts can't pressure addicts into such programs, she fears, those who need residential treatment the most won't accept it.

The fact remains that even perfunctory outpatient treatment is a more humane response to drug use than prison.

What's more, while opponents argue that 36 is misleading, they're no pikers in the misleading department. Watch what will happen if 36 passes. Today, opponents say that 36 would tie their hands and prevent them from incarcerating users who don't stay clean during rehabilitation; next year, they'll be citing language in the law that allows them to do just that. Yes on 36 spokesman Dave Fratello noted, “The night after the election, I'm sure that most of our opponents will embrace this law and make it work.”

San Francisco Public Defender Jeff Brown figures that the measure will end a “disparity of sentencing” so that first-time offenders won't be sentenced to prison mainly because they went before the wrong judge or lived in the wrong county.

To go by the legislative analyst's numbers, a lot of users have been to the wrong judge or county.

It's also important that this measure pass because it would send a message to Washington and Sacramento that voters want more than harsh sentences, they want smart sentencing. Let violent criminals do hard time, but don't incarcerate nonviolent drug users who stand convicted of no other crime. It's a waste of their lives and — with an annual cost of more than $21,000 per inmate — taxpayer resources.

“If you show that the voters can get behind a smart, different drug policy,” Fratello noted, “that's going to help politicians grow a backbone.”

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