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E-Letter To The Washington Times And Thomas D. Elias Re: California Offers Rehab, Not Jail

Your article California Offers Rehab, Not Jail is both right and wrong about Prop 36 and the change it represents in the “War On Drugs”. You are absolutely correct when you speak of how California is woefully unprepared to execute the Prop 36 program as advertised. The lack of foresight; inertia of the state’s bureaucracy; and insufficient supply of resources all promise to result in dashed expectations for supporters of the program. And in that sense you also have a point about the personal ambitions of the program’s financial backers like George Soros, who at times, appear more interested in looking good than in doing good.

The numbers simply do not add up for the program to be a success, as it is currently structured. As you know, California's drug treatment programs currently serve about 70,000 a year, with approximately 5,000 people waiting for admission to treatment programs every month. Under Proposition 36, which went into effect July 1st, the program could generate an additional 36,000 to 50,000 new drug treatment clients a year.

Currently California budgets about $354 million a year for treatment services. An additional $330 million per year would be needed to provide the necessary resources to support the existing program and to serve those currently on waiting lists, establish adolescent treatment programs and to solve existing problems in the program.

While the supporters of Prop 36 have said the measure could eventually save taxpayers up to $200 million a year that goes toward incarcerating people for possession of controlled substances, the new law provides for only a $60 million appropriation to fund substance-abuse treatment programs for the remainder of the 2000-2001 fiscal year and a continuing annual appropriation of $120,000 after that.

The program shortchanges itself. Its eyes are bigger than its stomach.

But having said that, it does not mean that Prop 36 does not represent the direction in which the “War On Drugs should be headed.

Since 1970, the federal anti-drug budget has grown from $1 billion to more than $17 billion a year.
In the United States, drug use dropped between 1979 and 1992--from 14.1% to 5.8% of Americans over age 12 saying they'd used some illegal substance in the last month. But during the very same time period, drug offenders went from making up less than 25% to nearly 60% of inmates in federal prisons.

But does locking up criminals really end crime or drug abuse? You seem to think so, writing that one of the problems that you have with Prop 36 is that with the threat of jail time not hanging over the head of a defendant, they have less incentive to “straighten up”. Sounds good on the surface, but if that logic were true, why are there so many repeat offenders, some of whom have served as many as 3 to 5 years in jail for crimes. Many have served much longer. Surely, they know the costs of a jail term in their personal and professional lives but they return again to a life of crime knowing that jail time awaits their next arrest. In addition, locking up a small-time drug pusher only opens up the block or spot to the next small-time drug dealer. Don’t let the numbers fool you. You aren’t stopping crime or drug abuse under the current system, partly because arrests and incarceration do not solve the underlying economic and moral decay. Quite often they aggravate such decay.

And how do you explain the racial disparities if the current system is working as properly? Throughout the history of the “War On Drugs” some statistics and surveys have shown that Blacks only made up 12% of drug users but 44% of all drug possession arrests and in California, 70% of the people sent to prison for drug offenses were Black while more than 63% of the public drug treatment slots were filled by Whites.
All in all, America’s prison population today is touching 2 million people and what does this country have to show for it?

It is proven that prison sentences alone do not sufficiently impede drug demand, drug supply or recidivism. Treatment, at least, addresses the demand for drugs and the recidivism problems. And while Prop 36 may fail under the weight of government bureaucracy, insufficient funding and political opportunism, treatment deserves a chance and more funding. It is not possible for any single state in the Union to solve a national problem, what is wrong with California’s Prop 36 should be fixed and turned into a federal initiative. Of course the word “federal” automatically makes some self-righteous Conservatives and Republicans flinch but how can those same Republicans and Conservatives justify the $46 billion that is estimated to be spent annually on the building of new prisons with government incentives and tax breaks to boot, or the $20,000 to $30,000 spent annually by taxpayers to warehouse men and women in jail? If Conservatives and Republicans would view the criminal justice system like they view the old welfare program they would put it out of business.

If some of those resources for increased prison construction and human warehousing were taken and applied to treatment programs that work, increased border security, and if banks were actually prosecuted for drug money laundering, you would see a reduction in drug demand and supply and recidivism that would boggle the mind. And then, you would not have to focus on the shortcomings of a state drug program, like Prop 36, you could then write about actual progress made against drug abuse – something that you can’t do under the current state and federal system


Cedric Muhammad

Tuesday, July 17, 2001

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