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Experts fear new lighter penalties for drug offenses could lead to more overdose deaths in California
Last November, 60 percent of the citizens of California voted “Yes” on the controversial Proposition 47, also known as the Safe Neighborhoods and Schools Act, which reduces non-violent drug-related crimes from felonies to misdemeanors.
The new law affects “non-serious, nonviolent crimes” unless the defendant has prior convictions for murder, rape, certain sex offenses or certain gun crimes.
Also, anyone already serving a sentence now can be re-sentenced. That means defendants in drug treatment as a result of a Drug Court sentence can now walk out of treatment without finishing it and not suffer the consequence of a felony conviction on their record. Until now, Drug Court-ordered treatments had to be completed to have the felony conviction scrubbed.
The effects of Prop. 47 are being felt throughout most of the state. And in Southern California’s affluent Orange County (OC), the new law is creating a massive stir. Since the vote was enacted, OC officials say admissions at government-funded treatment centers have dropped significantly. They blame Prop. 47, which has effectively neutered Drug Court magistrates who can no longer entice many drug offenders to enter treatment with the reward of a scrubbed felony conviction when they graduate.
And in spite of the fact that the county just added another $1.7 million to its already generous $9.4-million public detox and rehab fund, Court officials say they’re “bracing for a big drop in applicants.”
Paul Shapiro, the OC’s Superior Court coordinator of collaborative courts, told the OCRegister that Drug Court was averaging about 50 evaluations each month during 2014 until Prop. 47 passed in November. Since then, Shapiro said, there were only 25 evaluations in November, and this dropped to 15 in December. Shapiro said there’s still some hope that the decline will let up or reverse.
But other professionals told the paper that if addicts are referred to the program, they may decline treatment because there’s no threat of a felony record. Without that motivation to enter treatment, “a lot of people will just wait until they hit another barrier,” said Cathy Stills, executive director of a treatment center called Hope House. “This might be an overdose, a car crash, or something more serious.”
Proponents of Prop 47 say there are other means and methods to encourage drug dependent offenders to enter treatment than “threatening them with a felony.” They should be treated like any other drug addict with life problems, and dealt with on a personal level, they say.
But Superior Court Judge Matthew Anderson, who’s been presiding over the Drug Court program for 15 years, says otherwise. According to the OCRegister, Anderson dismissed the notion that society needs to readjust how it helps addicts. He said Drug Court already did that when it was introduced nationally more than 20 years ago. “We’ve been dealing with drug addiction for decades, and before drug courts came into being, the criminal justice system was struggling mightily,” Anderson said.
Anderson pointed to the Drug Court’s successes: Of the 1,911 people who’ve graduated since it began in Orange County in 1995, 28.8 percent were arrested again – far lower than the 74.4 percent recidivism rate cited for those who didn’t complete drug court. “It’s unfortunate that a program as prominent and successful as Drug Court could be placed at risk here,” Anderson told the OCRegister.
It seems that Southern California is the most natural region for something like Prop. 47 to pass. And that’s especially true in Orange County, the home of Disneyland, the World Series-winning Anaheim Angels, the Stanley Cup-winning Anaheim Ducks and a whole slew of Fortune 500 companies.
OC is also home to more than 3 million Southern Californians who appear to enjoy a generally higher standard of living than many of their 4 million neighbors just to the north in the City of Los Angeles. Orange County denizens tend to think they have everything a little better than their fellow citizens to the north – things like less urban blight and lower unemployment, better jobs and housing and newer, better schools for their more-privileged kids.
Orange County and Los Angeles County together make up the Los Angeles metropolitan area. With a population of 10 million, it’s the second-largest metropolitan area in the US, after the New York metropolitan area with 24 million residents. And even when Orange County and Los Angeles County are combined with their three neighboring counties – San Bernardino, Riverside, and Ventura counties, which makes up what’s known as Greater Los Angeles, totaling over 18 million people – Southern California still comes in behind New York as far as population goes.
If you drive the 50 or so miles of colorful coastal highway from Long Beach in L.A. south to San Clemente, where OC ends and San Diego begins, you pass through a half dozen or so of the wealthiest beach communities in the country – Seal Beach, Huntington Beach, Costa Mesa, Newport Beach, Laguna Beach, Dana Point (famous for surfing) and at the southernmost point, San Clemente, where President Richard Nixon’s ‘Western White House’ entertained world leaders, and where the former President lived after his retirement. Nixon was an OC boy himself, born and raised in Yorba Linda.
Yet in recent years, in spite of being perceived as a Mecca for the privileged Southern California lifestyle, OC has been plagued by a rising tide of drugs and addiction. Like the rest of America, the county has had to cope with the soaring crime rates and overdose deaths and other family tragedies that accompany widespread drug abuse.
And if you tune in to Southern California radio or TV news you’re going to hear this sprawling, ethnically diverse region called “The Southland” – fabled home to countless millionaires whose handsome, smiling faces you see every day on TV and in the movies. Southern California breeds a feeling, an attitude, that you’re in the best of all possible places – the best opportunities, best weather, best beaches, best surfing and, of course, wall-to-wall movie stars.
Two things are clear from all this. First, higher living standards, great surfing and movies stars offer no protection from the negative personal and societal effects of drug and alcohol abuse. In fact, in some way, actually encourage drug abuse.
And second, since Prop 47 has passed, the people of OC and the entire state of California need to come up with something pretty quick to deal with the soaring numbers of law-breaking drug offenders, something as effective as Drug Court, or hopefully, even better.
Meanwhile, here at Novus Medical Detox Center, we’re still hard at work helping our patients recover their lives after falling prey to drugs and alcohol. And according to the smiles on their faces and what they tell us, we’re doing one heck of a good job. If you or anyone you care for is having a problem with drugs or alcohol, don’t hesitate to give us a call. We’re always here to help.
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