LOS ANGELES (AP) — A California voter-approved ballot measure to reduce some felonies to misdemeanors is jeopardizing alternative sentencing programs to help drug offenders kick their habits.
Judges and other supporters fear that Proposition 47 removes the incentive for addicts to sign up for drug courts because they can opt instead for misdemeanor sentences that rather than rigorous treatment required to graduate from so-called drug courts.
Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Michael Tynan teared up recently as he addressed 16 men and two women at one of the largest drug court graduations he’d seen, the Los Angeles Times reported Sunday.
“I’m afraid it may be the last large graduation,” he said.
Drug courts have been around since the 1990s to provide treatment instead of prison sentences for low-level felony offenders. Supporters say they are cheaper and more effective than prison terms. Successful participants avoid a felony sentence.
Under Proposition 47, however, felonies for drug possession and some other nonviolent offenses have been reduced to misdemeanors and bring shorter prison sentences.
In Los Angeles County, the drug court program runs 12 to 15 months and requires serving about 100 days in a jail unit for drug treatment. Participants check in with Tynan every month.
It’s unrealistic to get addicts to volunteer for the program without a felony hanging over their head, said Doug Marlowe, of the National Association of Drug Court Professionals. Studies have found that participants do better if the court has power over them and that California drug court participants didn’t reoffend as much those in nondrug court mandated treatment.
“Without some substantial stick and carrot, the outcomes are quite poor,” Marlowe said.
San Diego Judge Peter Gallagher said he has already seen the impact among those who are eligible for drug court or a misdemeanor.
“They said, ‘Nope,’ “ Gallagher said. “They’ll go back and take misdemeanor punishment.”
Retired Santa Barbara Superior Court Judge George Eskin, who campaigned for Proposition 47, said treatment should be for those who really want it, not those looking to avoid prison. “The treatment isn’t going to be meaningful if that’s their incentive,” he said.
In Santa Clara County, Superior Court Judge Stephen Manley is looking to re-tool his drug court, possibly aiming it at addicts charged with felonies such as first-degree burglary, felony vandalism and low-level drug sales, who are not eligible for misdemeanor reductions.
Deputy Public Defender Mark DeWit said 605 people have graduated from the Los Angeles program since 1998, a figure he said was “really high.”
Participants in Tynan’s court said the program had saved their lives.
Mariann Avery told a packed courtroom that her life had been controlled by meth and cocaine since she was 13. If she hadn’t been forced to go through drug court, she probably would have continued on that path.
“I’d be dead right now,” she said.
In San Diego, participants in Gallagher’s drug court who were given the option of having their charges dropped down to misdemeanors under Proposition 47, decided to stick with the program.