California's Prop 47 Could Hurt Drug Court Programs

By McCarton Ackerman 12/17/14

Reducing the severity of sentences could lead addicts to choosing prison instead of help.

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California’s recent approval of Proposition 47 will drastically reduce the sentences of non-violent drug offenders, but could have the unintended consequence of negatively affecting drug court programs.

The new proposition turned several felonies, including drug possession, into a misdemeanor. The maximum punishment is now a year in jail and most offenders are released after a few weeks due to overcrowding. But drug court programs, which provide substance abuse treatment for low-level offenders instead of jail time, last significantly longer. Court officials are concerned that offenders won’t agree to the program without the threat of a felony and pick more painful, but shorter jail sentences.

"It's a disorder of now, it's a disorder of compulsions," said Doug Marlowe, of the National Association of Drug Court Professionals, in talking about addiction. "Without some substantial stick and carrot, the outcomes are quite poor."

There are 10 drug court programs throughout L.A. County, but 70% of the drug court population were charged with crimes listed in Proposition 47. The most serious of the programs is for sentenced offenders and lasts 12-15 months, including 100 days in a county jail module focused on drug treatment. Approximately 1,680 people have been screened for the program since it started in 1998 and 605 have graduated.

Some judges believe that offenders who take drug court programs just to avoid prison won’t have a meaningful experience, while others believe they can be helped once they enter, even if the initial reason is less than ideal. Mariann Avery, a recent graduate whose addiction began at age 13, admitted that she “would be dead by now” without the program.

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McCarton Ackerman is a freelance writer and editor living in Portland, Oregon. He has been a contributor for The Fix since October 2011, writing on a wide range of topics ranging from medical marijuana in Colorado to the world's sexiest drug smugglers. Follow him on Linkedin and Twitter.