California’s Proposition 36 provides for mandatory drug treatment instead of prison for those convicted of drug possession, no matter what they’ve been convicted of in the past. But the “mandate” is largely imaginary. If an offender absconds and is taken back before a judge, the maximum sanction the judge can impose is more treatment. And if, having absconded once and being ordered again to what he refused to do the first time, an offenders absconds again, and is referred back the judge for a second time, the maximum penalty he faces is — you guessed it — more drug treatment.
Naturally, overworked probation officers have no time or motivation play this silly game, so they never bother to fill out the paperwork and spend hours in court just to pile one futility on top of another. As a result, offenders are perfectly free to flip off the system and act as if mandatory treatment were something they can take or leave at their discretion. Unsurprisingly, one-third of those who take the Prop. 36 deal never even show up for treatment, and half of the rest drop out before completing it: mostly after only one or a few visits.
Prop. 36 turns out to be better than prison. (Well, almost anything be.) But it’s probably not as good as mandatory treatment. The California legislature passed a law allowing short jail stays for Prop. 36 absconders. The authors of Prop. 36 seem to think that this would violate the intention of the voters: as if a majority of Californians really intended to vote for mandatory treatment that wasn’t actually mandatory. And they’ve gotten a judge to agree with them. For all I know, the judge may be right as a matter of law, but freezing the current law is demonstrably lousy policy. Improving the quality of treatment is a great idea, but it’s not sufficient to solve the problem. No matter how good a treatment program is, it won’t work on people who don’t attend it.
My friends in the “drug policy reform” community are tired of hearing me say that, as a movement, they’re as ideological and fact-resistant as the “drug warriors” they so despise. (Naturally, the drug warriors also resent the comparison.) I, too, wish that it weren’t accurate. But the facts are the facts.