Though Proposition 5 was defeated in November by a margin of 20 percent, there are still other state-run programs that use drug treatment as an alternative to prison.
Prop 36 is one such program. Voted into law in 2000, this proposition gives a limited number of people sentenced to shorter prison terms the option to receive drug treatment instead of prison.
One resident of Woodland‘s Walter House, a residential drug treatment facility, is getting treatment for the first time through Prop 36 after a decade of methamphetamine abuse.
This Northern California native, who wished to remain anonymous, first got arrested as a juvenile after breaking into houses to pay for his habit.
“I‘d feel like crap and have to go steal from people to get high,” he said. “I was doing whatever I could to get high.“
Now he‘s 27, and after being arrested again as an adult and sent to prison, he is taking “this opportunity here [at the Walter House] because I‘m tired of the old behavior.“
He said that before he was given Prop 36 he tried to seek treatment unsuccessfully.
“I was trying to get to [a residential treatment facility] like this, but I didn‘t have the money to pay for it,” he said.
There have been 100 people given treatment through Prop 36 in Yolo County since July 1 of this year, said Yolo County Prop 36 team member George Pence.
Once a person is given the Prop 36 option in Yolo County, they get sent to Pence, who assesses their needs based on a wide range of factors including everything from medical and psychological problems to employment. Based on this, a three-year program is developed with up to one year of funded treatment.
“Everything they need, that‘s available to them,” he said. “Everything the county has available, I can refer the clients to.“
Paying for treatment is an essential feature of any success garnered from Prop 36, Pence said. Residential treatment can cost on average $2,250 a month, and as with the Walter House resident, many people with substance abuse issues cannot afford this.
Pence said Prop 36 is a good alternative to prison for people who sincerely desire treatment.
“People go to prison and they come out with resentment,” he said. “People go in there and they learn new crimes, new ideas. For people that go in to treatment and are ready to quit, [Prop 36] is really successful.“
Prop 36 is not a free pass for drug offenders, Pence said. People put on the program are allowed two drug test violations, but after the third they either go to felony probation or serve out their prison sentence.
Despite the successes, Pence said that there are some offenders who get in to the Prop 36 program that do not have a sincere desire to quit. For people like this, he said the program is relatively ineffective.
Drug courts are the other newer method being used to treat substance abuse instead of incarceration in Yolo County.
Drug courts first started appearing around the country in 1995. Yolo County established its drug court in 1998, and now takes in 40 felony cases per year.
The drug court accepts nonviolent offenders with a history of drug abuse, said Yolo County drug court coordinator Florence Gainor.
“Drug court is designed to give people a last chance when they have failed at other types of probation,” Gainor said. “It is very structured, very intense. They must complete a drug treatment program.“
The offense a person is charged with does not necessarily have to be drug related for the offender to be sent to drug court, Gainor said, but they must show that they have a history of drug abuse.
“The alternative is prison, which is not necessarily very successful,” she said. “Mostly they don‘t get any treatment in prison, and keep using.“
This was true for the Walter House resident, who was approached seven months into his prison term and asked if he wanted meth.
Gainor said that as the meth problem in Yolo County has increased and as people have been using meth for longer periods of time, the problem is becoming increasingly complex.
“We used to have addicts that commit crimes, and now we have criminals that use drugs,” she said. “They have longer methamphetamine histories, so the population we deal with is harder to treat.“
Gainor was confident in the success of drug courts as opposed to prisons.
“It‘s absolutely more successful than prison,” she said. “Not only are we not spending dollars on prison, we‘re having them contribute to society for the first time. That‘s a really big deal when you think about it. They‘re contributing rather than taking away from the system.“
Presiding Yolo County Superior Court Judge, and former drug court judge, Dave Rosenberg is “a believer in drug courts and drug treatment programs.“
Rosenberg said that drugs are part of the reason for most crimes in California.
“I would say that 75 percent of the people that come to court…are either charged with drug crimes or drugs are a part of the problem, and 75 percent of those folks have problems with methamphetamine,” he said.
When he ran the drug court, it had a success rate of 75 percent, he said.
The key to this success, Rosenberg said, was ensuring that people sent to drug courts knew that the judge would send them to prison if they didn‘t complete their program as directed.
“They have to fear the judge more than they want the drug, and then it works,” he said.
Rosenberg described Yolo County‘s meth problem as “vicious and pervasive.“
“It is the worst social problem we face in America today,” he said. “I‘ve seen people in court who have lost their jobs, lost their spouses, they‘re homeless, their hair is falling out … all because of meth. It doesn‘t take very long to get addicted and it takes years to repair the brain.“
The man getting treatment at Walter House now feels more optimistic than ever about being able to take control of his substance abuse problem.
“I realized that people care,” he said.
Soon he will be leaving the Walter House, and when that happens, he plans to go back to school to be a mechanic and to make up for lost time with his family.
JON GJERDE can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.