Analysis Of Proposition Thirty Six In California Criminology Essay

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During the late 1990s California was incarcerating large numbers of first and second time drug offenders. The Substance Abuse and Crime Prevention Act (SACPA) or Proposition 36 was passed in reply to a professional and public outcry for the removal of draconian drug incarceration guidelines. Proposition 36 was put before the public November 7th, 2000 and passed by a 61% vote (, about section). The act went into effect in July 2001, and has treated over 450,000 individuals since its inception (Evans, Hser, & Huang, 2010). Its widespread positive reviews and effects have resulted in the spawning of similar programs in other states. Those individual programs have also seen a positive response with the system.

Through a change of state law, Proposition 36 allows non-violent drug offenders to avoid incarceration if it is their first or second offense. The act sets up a voluntary substance abuse treatment program, in conjunction with probation, in lieu of incarceration. This alternative sentencing program diverts many low level drug offenders from incarceration and gets them drug treatment, mental health evaluations, mental health treatment, (Evans, Anglin, Urada & Yang, 2011) and also occasionally offers job training (Evans, et al. 2010).

Description of Policy

Proposition 36 is primarily an alternative sentencing tool that allows first and second time drug offenders to get into treatment, as opposed to incarceration. This proposition came about because of a few key points. Incarceration is expensive: according to recent estimates from the Legislative Analyst's Office say; it costs a minimum of 31,000 dollars to incarcerate one inmate for one year in California. The costs go up dramatically if medical help or psychiatric help is needed for that inmate, which is often a reality for drug users when they get incarcerated ( Another key problem with incarceration is overcrowding, and storing those roughly 50,000 SACPA eligible candidates every year. Current understanding of addiction in most circles see it as a disease, and the thinking behind the proposition is that rehabilitation and treatment of a disease is always preferable to punishing a person for the disease they have. The passage of Prop. 36 is also demonstrative of the more permissive view society has developed in regards to drug related crime.

Identify the Problem/Need

The problems plaguing the California Criminal Justice System are many. One big issue that comes to mind was the large number of habitual use offenders that were incarcerated because of their disease. The implications of arrest and incarceration prior to the passing of Proposition 36 were serious, as employers would often terminate employees. Upon finishing ones incarceration, it becomes exceedingly difficult to find and keep a job with the specter of a criminal record over one's head. The problem of state funding for prisons, and the overcrowding that was a result of the tough-on-crime legislation passed in the late 80s and through the 90s saw drug users getting life in prison for drug possession felonies. This was primarily a result of the harsh penalties for possession of certain types of narcotics, regardless of quantity, or being under their influence. Repeat offense under the influence crimes carry increasingly harsh penalties for most drugs within the state, and without therapeutic sentencing there is very little chance that an addict will attain sobriety on their own. Once removed from society, arrested and incarcerated, the inmate will most likely return to civilian life in worse shape than before. If the offender is only being punitively removed from society, and not granted skills related to leading a healthy legal life outside of the system, they will invariably learn another skill set, taught by fellow inmates. What was required was a therapeutic, non-punitive drug diversion program, which served the community and the individual (Klein, Miller & Noble, 2004).

Development of Policy

Proposition 36 was authored by the Drug Policy Alliance, an activist organization fighting to reform drug laws at all levels of government. The policy began getting drafted in the late 90s as a response to the changing public opinion on law enforcement versus community resolution for nonviolent drug crime. Much of the development was left up to the discretion of individual counties, in conjunction with the Department of Alcohol and Drug Programs. This built in individuality is one of the key shortcomings of the program (Klein, et al. 2004).

Like most public policies, the framers of Prop. 36 make a few assumptions. There is the acknowledgement that incarceration just quarantines those sentenced to it. Little to no good is done through the housing of addicts, without treatment. According to the National Association of Drug Court Professionals, there is a 95% percent recidivism rate for those drug addicts with no treatment, just incarceration. Those addicts who receive treatment, and complete a drug court program face a 75% chance of remaining arrest free two or more years after graduating ( This rate of return on investment is noteworthy because it ends up saving the tax payers money. This results in one less person that needs to be housed in a correctional facility, which is at the bare minimum another 30,000 dollars not spent. The largest assumption made by the framers of proposition 36 is that an addict will opt for a clean and sober life, when given the option to. The part of this that is an assumption is that not everyone is ready to get clean, and sober. The willingness to begin recovery is a highly personalized decision, just undergoing treatment due to a somewhat coercive choice (go to jail/prison, or undergo treatment) is no guarantee that it will stick. This is something that many judicial officials have cited as a point of frustration for them (Burns & Peyrot, 2008).

Evaluation of Policy

Results of the implementation of Prop 36 have been varied, but all in all fairly favorable. There has been a definite reduction in the incarceration of successfully prosecuted drug offenders. Along with the reduction in incarcerated drug offenders, there has over a 350% increase in probation sentencing (Calif. DOJ, 2004.) Some of the users that are offered proposition 36 treatments are capitalizing on it, keeping up with the treatment, adopting the changes in mindset, lifestyle, and finishing the court mandated treatment. These individuals have had great success in maintaining sobriety and not reoffending. Unfortunately one of the big problems that is beginning to make itself apparent is that of overcrowding. Much like our correctional facilities, California has been having more and more people hit the community based Prop. 36 systems. The problem with a large number of clients within this system is that it changes the ability to effectively tailor treatment options to the individual. As stated earlier, recovery is a highly individualized process, and when the system is too crowded it becomes very difficult to provide individualized responses. When the overcrowding begins to affect the system one of the things that begins to fall off is effective diagnosis of mental health cases. The importance of diagnosing these cases early on in the recovery process is paramount, and proper recovery cannot begin until mental health issues have been diagnosed, and remedied, counseling and treatment are implemented (Niv, Hamilton & Hser, 2009). One of the key marketing points of SACPA has been its fiscal impact. It was theorized that this therapeutic sentencing option would save taxpayer dollars. According to some sources, the taxpayers were saved over 1.4 billing dollars by 2004, which is 3 years' worth of implementation. According to the reviewing agency (UCLA) SACPA is having greater positive effects than anticipated, not the least of which is its fiscal efficiency, paying the government back what little seed money the program needs annually. According to a recent fiscal analysis of the benefits of Prop. 36, the over-all cost saving ratio for the proposition is two and a half to one: for every dollar put into the program by the state government, the state saves two dollars and fifty cents. Further examination also reveals that if clients actually complete the program, the savings to the government are somewhat closer to four to one (Niv, Hamilton & Hser, 2009).


In its current state, Proposition 36 is a fairly effective program; even with no modifications it saves money, making it an appealing treatment program for fiscal conservatives, as it leaves money for budgetary adjustments. Although it is a diversionary treatment court, one argument states that with the addition of a bit more budgetary allotment, the SACPA treatment model could be greatly improved. This change would come with a mandatory job training/placement component. The logic behind this would be the documented relationship of substance abuse treatment results and working. Studies have shown that a major shift in criminal behavior and drug use careers can occur with the reintroduction of steady work. This makes the argument for the addition of vocational training. Its inclusion in the treatment protocol can ensure a further reduction in cost to the public, as some of the clients could easily become self-sufficient and remove themselves from various state and local government funded programs (Evans, et al. 2010).

Another possible line of improvement could be related to the standardization of services provided. Given that not all counties in the state of California are fiscally uniform, the improvement of services across the board; based on the things that are working in model courts, could show large benefits throughout the entire state. Additionally requiring a uniform mental/ health assessment upon entry into the program could greatly increase the chances of successful completion. It is very difficult to alleviate an addiction issue when there are underlying mental/physical reasons for self-medicating. In Drug and Dependency Treatment Court, it has become apparent that when mental and physical symptomology continue undiagnosed or untreated, the individual will continually test out of services, or habitually relapse. Through diagnosis of mental or physical issues at the onset of Proposition 36 treatment, the root causes of self-medication could be resolved before the focus of the system is placed on the results of said self-medication: drug dependency and addiction (Niv, Hamilton & Hser, 2009).


The true value of a therapeutic drug treatment sentencing option is something that has not yet been seen. It will most likely take many more years of close scrutiny to determine its values; however in the past ten years the SACPA has shown its effectiveness in California through the reduction of prison crowding. Additionally it has proved its efficacy through the reintroduction of scores of former drug abusers into society, and, in some cases, back into the workforce. As a forward thinking, therapeutic-focused measure, Proposition 36 has been lauded by many different individuals. In the Terraine Street courthouse in Santa Clara County, one of the busiest court days occurs in the courtroom of Judge Manley, the judge who presides over several different calendars, but notably is charged with the inglorious, and time consuming task of hearing the drug court cases, which are almost all Prop. 36 clients. His work, although often viewed as thankless and difficult, has elevated him to of the simultaneously most revered, and reviled judicial officials in the county. Much like Judge Dorn in No matter how loud I shout, by Humes, Judge Manley has shown his interest in the recovery of those prop. 36'ers that have entered his court, the benefits can be seen in the steady stream of graduates from the program, and the individuals that have come across this author's desk in the Drug and Dependency court setting. Many of the client's we have are both in family dependency and drug court, and they get the rehabilitation/recovery message from both sides every time they see us. That in and of itself is a huge motivator for most to continue, but those who do not feel the need to do so, are still under the watchful eye of the probation department, and theoretically, could be violated back to incarceration if the presiding judge so wills it. The most important feature of the program for most politicians however will continue to fall on the bottom line. Is this program financially feasible? It has been shown to be, and therefore it will most likely be renewed until a more cost effective option is found, or drug related offenses disappear due to change in the laws.


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