Drug Reforms Would Keep Users Jail-Free 

Drug Reforms Would Keep Users Jail-Free 
Posted by FoM on May 28, 2000 at 16:16:42 PT
By Robert Salladay & Zachery Coile
Source: San Francisco Examiner 
With her bluntly cut blond bangs, pale blue eyes and quiet voice, Ninon Mayrbaurl is not the person you would expect to be sent to jail 15 times. The 31-year-old Santa Rosa native has been convicted of burglary, but her major offense is what she considers a medical condition: a drug addiction that may have started when she tried marijuana at age 7, snorted cocaine at 15 or smoked crack at 18. 
She has watched much of her 20s drift by in the concrete cells of various Bay Area jails. After a few weeks or months back on the street, she is arrested on another drug possession charge or fails a drug test and violates her parole. "I would get out and do the same thing and end up back in jail. The same thing happened every time," said Mayrbaurl, now a client at a substance abuse treatment center near Alamo Square run by San Francisco-based Walden House. There were 17,671 other stories like this in California last year. That's the number of men and women sent back to prison for drug offenses they committed while on parole. They mostly smoked crack cocaine. Some smoked a joint. Some did heroin. They're drug addicts. Within weeks, a group of wealthy philanthropists, drug-reformers and medical marijuana promoters are expected to receive official word that a wide-ranging initiative they have written will go before California voters to address this growing problem. The Campaign for New Drug Policies measure, scheduled for the November ballot, would require people convicted of nonviolent drug offenses - including nonviolent prison parolees - be sent to drug treatment centers instead of prison or county jail. If they successfully complete their treatment program, their drug offense would be erased from their record. If they fail, a judge can send them back to prison or jail for up to 16 months. The measure would be the most significant reform to the drug laws since California passed its "three strikes" sentencing law in 1994. According to one estimate, it could free up to 25,000 prison and county jail beds a year, save $250 million in yearly state costs and significantly expand community drug treatment programs with $120 million in taxpayer funding. Beyond Warehousing: "We're trying to treat drug abuse as a health issue rather than a criminal justice issue," said Dave Fratello, spokesman for the initiative. "We believe - and the studies back this up - that drug users are much better served by enrolling in some sort of treatment services than simply being warehoused." Beyond almost certain opposition from the prison guards union and from Gov. Davis, who has become one of the nation's most conservative governors on crime issues, other politicians and anti-crime groups are sure to work against the measure because it touches the third rail of California politics: three strikes. The three strikes law requires anyone with one felony conviction to have their sentenced doubled if they commit another felony. Anyone with two felony convictions must be sent to prison for 25 years to life on their third conviction, regardless of the type of crime. Under the initiative, convicted felons who stayed out of trouble for at least five years would not be sentenced under the three strikes law for committing a nonviolent drug offense. They would be sent to drug treatment instead. Jeff Thompson, a lobbyist with the California Correctional Peace Officers Association, said the measure would endanger businesses that hire people for sensitive jobs such as teacher or bus driver, because drug offenses would be erased from the books. Thompson said the measure would forbid parole officers from sending someone back to prison if he or she tested positive for drugs. And that, he said, could endanger the public as well. Might Clog the Courts: "One of the reasons (parolees are sent back to prison) is they don't have a job and they are supporting their habit through criminal activity," Thompson said. "If they haven't been caught doing that yet, drug use is generally a good indicator that they are back to their original behavior." Other law enforcement groups say they see troubling signs with the initiative as well. Alameda County District Attorney Tom Orloff said that since the initiative requires drug treatment - not jail time - for a first and second drug offense, it might prompt defense attorneys to demand jury trials, and clog the courts. Their clients would have nothing to lose by taking a case to trial and trying to get an innocent verdict, Orloff said, since there would be no threat of jail time if convicted. Fratello, however, said the hassle, expense and stress of demanding a trial means few drug offenders would take this option. They would more likely, he said, take the drug treatment right away and begin working off their sentence, with the threat of jail over their heads. California would not be the first state to pass such a measure. In 1996, when state voters approved the medical marijuana initiative, Arizona included drug reform provisions in its own medical marijuana measure. The Arizona Supreme Court, which reviewed the state's 1996 law as required under the initiative, said it has resulted in "safer communities and more substance abusing probationers in recovery." Millionaire Backers: The group that launched California's medical marijuana initiative is being helped on the new initiative by a trio of wealthy drug reformers, including New York philanthropist George Soros, Progressive Insurance founder Peter Lewis and the founder of the University of Phoenix business college, John Sperling. The budget, coming mostly from these three men, was about $1 million to gather the 715,000 signatures being reviewed this month by the secretary of state. Only 419,000 valid signatures are needed to qualify for the ballot, so the measure is likely to be approved for voters soon. "For him, this is also something of a human rights issue," said Ethan Nadelmann, an advisor to Soros on drug issues. "The notion of incarcerating people who are addicted to drugs just because they are addicted doesn't seem right." Some influential groups, including the state legislative analyst, have been warning for years that California is ignoring a significant problem: Drug addicts in prison are being treated like criminals when what they really need is medical treatment. An estimated 25,000 prisoners could be diverted from lockups and into treatment centers if the initiative passes, saving the state up to $250 million a year in daily prison costs and up to $575 million to build new facilities, according to the state legislative analyst, Elizabeth Hill. Davis and the Legislature have since 1998 taken a "balanced approach" to the prison overcrowding problem by asking for building more prisons while increasing the number of drug-treatment beds in the 33-prison system and expanding treatment programs for parolees. 'All This Is, Is A Business' Some prison reform advocates argue that putting drug addicts in prison only exacerbates their problems. Drugs remain easy to obtain in many prisons and jails, smuggled in by visiting family members and friends and sometimes by corectional staff. "I started using heroin in jail," said Elizabeth Ware, 47, of Bayview Hunters Point, a Walden House client who has used drugs for 20 years and has served time for petty theft and burglary. "When I got out, I began to steal to get drugs. I began to steal drugs," she said. "I started forging checks, stealing from my family - televisions, clothing - and from stores. I sold drugs. I prostituted for drugs." Bill Kanios, 46, a San Francisco native who ran a successful construction company until he succumbed to depression and his addiction, spent much of the last two decades selling drugs. To him, prison was a place to find new clients. "Whenever I had a chance to get back into the prison system, my contacts, my network system would reopen," said Kanios, who was released six weeks ago from Solano State Prison, where he served time for a parole violation for using methamphetamine. "I told this to the parole board the last time they violated me. I go, 'You people are stupid to send me back to prison because all this is, is a business in the end.' " Davis is asking for $126 million in the 2000-01 budget for various parolee and inmate treatment programs, much of it for drug rehabilitation. But so far the state only has 8,000 beds out of 162,000 devoted to drug treatment, when an estimated 70 percent of all inmates enter prison with some kind of drug in their system. Rehabilitation vs. Punishment: Jeff Brown, San Francisco's public defender, said that while the drug rehabilitation system needs to be reformed, the views of some in the criminal justice system need to be changed as well to confront drug addiction in their midst. "The system is thinking seriously about drug abuse," Brown said, "but I'm not sure all the actors in the criminal justice system are in favor of (reform). I think there are many people who are not willing to accept rehabilitation, drug courts and treatment, and still look at this as a system of punishment." For drug addicts like Nicole Warner, 24, of San Francisco, treatment is a desirable alternative to prison. Warner spent six months in jail fighting a robbery charge she said stemmed from drug and alcohol abuse. She eventually pleaded guilty to second degree burglary and a judge sentenced her to six months of treatment at Walden House. "I really hope this is what it's going to take," she said. "My son is 17 months old and I just love him to death. I really feel this is the right time. I feel like I'm done. This last year was so miserable, it couldn't have gotten any worse. I could have gone to prison. I feel really grateful." By Robert Salladay & Zachery CoileOf The Examiner StaffPublished: May 28, 2000 2000 San Francisco Examiner  Page A1 Related Articles & Web Site:The Soros Foundation Network Initiatives - A Snake in the Grass Roots Nation of Too Many Prisoners? Soros Supports Change in U.S. Approach to Drugs for Cannabis Justice Archives:
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