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California Cuts Funding for Prop 36 Drug Treatment Programs

In an effort to trim a $26.3 billion budget deficit, California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger slashed $90 million from a diversion program designed to offer certain non-violent drug offenders the opportunity to participate in substance abuse treatment instead of going to prison.

In 2000, in a rare show of rationality by members of the public relative to criminal justice issues, California voters approved Proposition 36. For those who meet specific eligibility requirements, Prop 36 mandates drug treatment at state expense in lieu of incarceration.

While such treatment programs require funding, studies have repeatedly shown that the costs of drug treatment are dwarfed by the alternative expense of imprisonment, and that treatment is more cost-effective and socially beneficial.

Such net savings, along with a potential reduction in criminal activity associated with illegal drug use through lower recidivism rates, have garnered favor with California voters – and with public officials. “This has been a very successful program; we should be spending more, not less on these people,” remarked Dan Nelson, a deputy district attorney.

Schwarzenegger’s budget cuts, announced last August and approved by the state legislature in January 2010, eliminated almost all funding for Prop 36 drug treatment programs. As a result, California counties – the principal recipients of the funding – are scrambling to find ways to keep their programs afloat.

Santa Anita Family Service, which provided drug treatment to around 75 patients, had to abruptly close. “I was absolutely shocked,” said Fred Loya, the program’s director. “Having to close a program so quickly is just not ethical but when our funding source cuts the water off we have no choice.” In addition to the loss of future funding, the state is not paying for services already provided by Prop 36 treatment programs from October to December 2009.

Numerous other Prop 36-funded programs have closed, leaving people who have court-ordered treatment requirements with few choices. “We have no options – there are no treatment programs available,” said L.A. Superior Court Judge Peter Espinoza. “It’s not the ideal, but we’re working within the confines of our current reality which is there isn’t money for anything.”

In Butte County, where not enough funding remains to provide treatment services for more than about a quarter of the 200 people in the county’s Prop 36 program, many of those who can’t afford to pay for their own treatment will end up going to prison.

Even with financial assistance from family members, some offenders don’t have enough money to pay for drug treatment. This reality threatens to make the Governor’s budget cuts counter-productive, as offenders unable to afford treatment are more likely to be incarcerated, at much higher cost to taxpayers, and will eventually return to their communities with little or no treatment, where they are more likely to re-offend.

“You’re certainly going to shoot yourself in the foot on any success that we’ve had in getting people into drug-free lives and being productive citizens again,” observed Kelly Brooks, with the California State Association of Counties.

By placing funding for Prop 36 on the fiscal chopping block, whatever money that Schwarzenegger hopes to save in the short run to help balance the state’s budget will be far exceeded by monetary – and societal – losses over the long term.

Sources: Chico Enterprise-Record, Pasadena Star-News

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