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Forward Step in Arizona

April 26, 1999



Keep an eye on Arizona's way of dealing with drug offenders.

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Instead of locking up nonviolent drug offenders - a practice that accounts for much of the overflow in US jails and prisons - it mandates treatment to help get them off drugs. Arizona officials report that three-quarters of the more than 2,000 people who've gone through the program so far have later tested drug-free. Continued monitoring will be needed to assess the program's long-term effect.

Officials also say the treatment option saved the state more than $5 million last year in prison costs, since participants in the program are on probation, not behind bars. The housing and care of inmates have become an ever larger part of state budgets coast to coast.

Not all offenders sentenced to probation and treatment stay away from narcotics. If they don't improve, prison remains the alternative.

Funds critical to providing treatment to drug users, as well the concept of mandatory treatment itself, came through a 1996 voter referendum, Proposition 200.

That measure was best known for legalizing marijuana for medicinal use. We have deep concerns about that step toward wider legalization of addictive drugs. But the law's emphasis on treatment instead of automatic jail time is clearly a step in the right direction.