County Braces For Impact Of Drug Law  

County Braces For Impact Of Drug Law  
Posted by FoM on April 17, 2001 at 16:05:14 PT
By Matt Lait, Times Staff Writer
Source: Los Angeles Times 
As Los Angeles County officials prepare for the July 1 implementation of a new law that dramatically changes the way drug offenders are treated by the courts, two matters have become abundantly clear: They need more time and they need more money.   "It's a monumental undertaking," said Los Angeles County Public Defender Michael P. Judge, who serves on local and statewide planning groups gearing up for the changes required under Proposition 36, which was passed by voters in November.
"Even after the deadline, it's going to be a work in progress. It could take years before all the issues are eventually settled."   Proposition 36, which 61% of voters favored, would shift many drug offenders--including those convicted of possessing, using or transporting drugs for personal use--from prisons to probation and treatment programs.   The reorientation could be profound because one in three of the state's 162,000 prisoners is serving time for a drug-related crime.   For the last five months, county officials throughout the state have scrambled to figure out how to identify, monitor and treat the tens of thousands of drug offenders who will qualify for services under the new law.   Nearly every part of the criminal justice system will be affected by the proposition's demands. Eventually, 30 existing Los Angeles County judges will be trained and designated to handle Proposition 36 drug offender cases. Probation officers, who monitor about 65,000 probationers in the county, are preparing to absorb up to 14,000 additional cases.   In the county, officials estimate that the courts will divert up to 20,000 additional drug offenders each year into treatment programs.   One of the biggest problems bedeviling county officials is finding enough qualified drug treatment providers to meet the expected need. County officials say they are trying to certify new providers, while asking the existing 300 providers to expand their reach.   Another challenge, they say, is making do with the limited funding that is supposed to cover the costs of implementing Proposition 36.   Under a statewide allocation formula, Los Angeles is receiving $15.7 million of the $60 million in start-up funds to create the infrastructure needed to administer the new law's provisions. In July, the county is expected to get about $31 million of the state's $120 million in annual operating funds for the measure.   To county officials, that's not enough.   Judge, the county public defender, said the county will receive about 26% of the money, but accounts for nearly 40% of the drug offenders who are in state prison. A contingent of county officials is negotiating with state representatives to get a larger share of the money.   "It's clear to us that Los Angeles did not get a proportionate share of the funds," Judge said.   Another potential financial problem is the new law's restriction against using any Proposition 36 money on drug testing for offenders enrolled in treatment programs. By most accounts, drug testing plays a vital role in treatment programs because it identifies addicts who relapse while providing positive reinforcement for those who remain sober.   "We believe testing is critical to a successful treatment program," said Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Michael A. Tynan, who serves on a local task force grappling with the ramifications of the new law.   Tynan said judges, probation officials and treatment counselors feel so strongly about the need for drug testing that they are drafting state legislation that would augment the Proposition 36 funds with money for such testing.   Drug testing is a key component of the county's current "Drug Court" treatment program, which Tynan said will serve as the model for Los Angeles' compliance with the new law. Under the Drug Court program, defendants are closely monitored by Superior Court judges and commissioners to ensure that they stick with their treatment. More than 70% of the defendants who successfully graduate from the Drug Court program remain sober years after their treatment, officials said.   During one recent Drug Court graduation, the defendants who completed the treatment course spoke of their gratitude for being given an option other than incarceration.   "It saved my life," said Luis Ruiz, a 32-year-old construction worker. "In fact, before [Drug Court] I wasn't really living, I had no life. I was just existing one day to the next."   Ruiz and the 20 other graduates of the East Los Angeles Drug Court program had been addicted to drugs for a total of 277 years. Over that time, they said, they crushed hundreds of relationships, wasted thousands of dollars and ruined untold dreams.   In theory, Proposition 36 would give thousands of other drug defendants a similar opportunity to turn their lives around. Whether they will actually get it is something judges, attorneys, health officials and many others are waiting to see.   "It's definitely a different approach to the war on drugs," Tynan said. "This is going to be a challenge; we're dealing with a lot of unknowns and a lot of uncertainties."   One question for Los Angeles County is whether the relatively small Drug Court model will be as successful on a larger scale, given the complications judges, probation officers and other court officials.   "You never feel like you're fully prepared," said David Davies, a spokesman for the county probation office. "The county started early on this. We've had amazing cooperation in the process so far. We've put together a plan that on the surface is doable. We'll see if it works."   As for prosecutors and defense attorneys, there are myriad issues that they expect will have to be resolved by the courts in the months or years ahead. Those matters stem largely from different interpretations of the language of Proposition 36, which is vague on such issues as what constitutes a "drug-related" probation violation and at what point a troublesome defendant is removed from a treatment program and sent to jail.   A plan outlining how the proposition will be implemented is expected to go to the county Board of Supervisors within a month. To keep the public informed of the ongoing plans, the Los Angeles County Department of Health Services has posted updates of the county's progress on its Web site: Effects of Prop. 36's diversion of offenders from jail to treatment are called monumental. Officials say they need more time and money. Source: Los Angeles Times (CA)Author: Matt Lait, Times Staff WriterPublished: April 17, 2001 Copyright: 2001 Los Angeles Times Contact: letters Website: Related Articles:Prop. 36 Drug Treatment Needs Assessment 36 Wins Big Despite Politicos Drug Testing Archives 
Home Comment Email Register Recent Comments Help

Comment #1 posted by KATHY WEDZIK on April 19, 2001 at 15:41:50 PT
[ Post Comment ]

Post Comment

Name: Optional Password: 
Comment: [Please refrain from using profanity in your message]
Link URL: 
Link Title: