Three Treatments, You're Out

People can be rescued from the destructiveness of drug addiction. Many have responded to drug rehabilitation programs, to counseling, and to spiritual awakening. Sadly, examples of men and women still trapped by addiction also abound - particularly behind bars.

The nation's prisons are filled with drug offenders, many of them convicted of violent crimes that spring from their habits. But many inmates are imprisoned for so-called nonviolent crimes, such as possession or use of illegal substances.

Should that type of offender be taking up prison space, and driving the construction of new prisons?

Alternatively, they could be "sentenced" to treatment and probation.

Through a ballot initiative, Californians will soon get an opportunity to make that alternative the policy of the country's largest state.

Polls indicate the state's voters favor the change, and their inclination is right. Wider access to treatment has long been a need in the battle against addiction. But California's citizens should approach this sweeping measure with open eyes.

Critics of Proposition 36 see it as a move away from stern punishment for narcotics use - perhaps even as a step toward legalization of illicit drugs. They emphasize the importance of letting addicts know their drug habit will bring sure trouble with the law.

The state has special "drug courts" that deal with addicts, and whose judges can already order treatment. Those judges can also instantly re-incarcerate users who revert to drugs during treatment. Prop 36 would mandate treatment instead of jail for people convicted of nonviolent drug offenses and would give offenders up to two more chances to stick with treatment before automatically sending them back to prison.

Proponents say the measure would move up to 36,000 offenders each year away from prison and into treatment. The state could save as much as $250 million a year.

But the savings won't come without costly effort.

First, the $120 million allocated by the ballot measure for drug treatment won't automatically produce needed facilities and trained staff. It will take commitment to meet the added demand for treatment.

Second, many people diverted from prison to treatment may not welcome the opportunity. These are the hard-core addicts unwilling to acknowledge their problems and accept the discipline of treatment.

California stands at a crossroads in antidrug policy.

If its voters take the path less traveled toward mandated treatment, the state will need money as well as a more caring, more long-term attitude toward addiction.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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