Commentary: Are the Bad Old Days Here Again?

by Robert Canning

Yolo District Attorney Reisig and West Sacramento Assemblyman Kevin McCarty want to take us back to the “bad old days.” Remember the 1980s when the police were given free rein to charge those who use drugs with heavy fines and long jail-terms? Our DA and Assemblyman McCarty have teamed up to take us back to the days when we could sweep the streets and lock up drug users (especially homeless ones). Except this time, they are advertising their bill – AB1542 – as progressive. The Davis Enterprise mistakenly called the bill a sentencing “reform” in their February 28 editorial. But unlike true reforms, AB1452 would simply incarcerate those who are deemed to have substance use disorders for up to a year in what is now the almost-empty Yolo Juvenile Detention Facility.

Let’s take a close look at AB1542. The bill requires that a peace officer, at the time a person is arrested, believes the individual “suffers from a substance use disorder” that may be the cause of the crime for which the person is being arrested. Notice that that the bill asks police officers to diagnose a substance abuse disorder. Given the controversies about the societal duties expected of the police, diagnosing substance abuse disorders doesn’t seem like one we should add to their already full plates.

AB1542 is an end-run around Propositions 47 and 36 (from 2000) which decriminalized many drug-related crimes and changed the dynamics of arrest and sentencing for these crimes. One result has been a decline in the use of the county’s Addiction Intervention Court (also known as drug court). Rather than going backward to incarceration of drug users, why not expand, strengthen, and truly reform drug court so there are incentives for those who suffer from substance use disorders to opt for treatment services. It’s true that fewer individuals are eligible for drug court treatment due to changes in the law, but why not expand the court to include some misdemeanors and other crimes? Instead, AB1542 allows a judge to sentence an individual to up to a year in a locked treatment facility.

Does mandated treatment work? The literature on forcing people into treatment for substance abuse is mixed and there are a lot of differences in protocols. A large study from the VA study (Substance use disorder patients who are mandated to treatment: Characteristics, treatment process, and 1- and 5-year outcomes) found that outcomes were similar after a month-long treatment program for mandated and voluntary programs. Note that this treatment was only for 21 or 28 days – as opposed to AB1542’s undefined year-long treatment program in a secured setting. Although it sounds like a great idea to mandate individuals into treatment, the outcomes are often dependent on the motivation of the participants. In mandated treatment for drunk drivers, “[t]reatment effectiveness depends to some extent on offenders’ motivation to participate, and offenders may resist treatment when their participation is coerced.”

Another problem with AB1542 is funding. The bill suggests that MediCal could pay for some of the treatment. But here’s the problem, the proposed “pilot” project is mandated in a secure setting, which sounds like a custodial (i.e. jail) setting. MediCal does not fund programs in locked or secured settings.  So if MediCal can’t pay, then who does? The bill doesn’t say, but it’s likely it would fall on the County, which would have to find the funding for the program. And remember, this is a 12 month program – 12 times the length of the program cited above from the VA study.

AB1542 has high falutin’ language about assessing needs and working with treatment programs and the “abject failure” of treatment programs. But one review of mandated treatment has stated that “three decades of research into the effectiveness of compulsory treatment have yielded a mixed, inconsistent, and inconclusive pattern of results, calling into question the evidence-based claims made by numerous researchers that compulsory treatment is eff.”

AB1542 is not good public policy. It continues the outmoded notion that incarcerating drug users is the way to “get them straight.” It also does not support Yolo County’s stated priorities to decriminalize those who suffer from substance use and mental disorders. The Board of Supervisors has made it a priority to follow the guidelines of the Stepping Up Initiative (see, which strives to reduce the number of mentally ill and substance users in jail.

I urge Vanguard readers to contact their Supervisors (in Davis they are Jim Provenza or Don Saylor) to oppose this bill and ask Assemblyman McCarty to withdraw it. It’s the wrong direction for Yolo County.

Robert Canning is a retired psychologist with CDCR and a member of the Vanguard Board.

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  1. Robert Canning

    Correction: There was no February 29 in 2021. The Davis Enterprise editorial in question appeared in the February 28th edition of the newspaper.

  2. Sharla Cheney

    It is not hard to detect bad behavior committed as a result of drug use.  It would be nice to get the guy who has been annoying people around our neighborhood park for the last 3 years into treatment.  The latest thing he did was to walk through the neighborhood and through the park, with his pants around his knees, exposing himself to kids playing on the play structure in the park.  He was arrested, but it is only a matter of time before he is released again and comes back to continue with his lifestyle.  If he is unwilling to voluntarily go to treatment, then jail becomes the only option we have.  He’s been offered housing and other resources and has family in the area, but he prefers to smoke meth and use other drugs and ride out his high in the park.  Tolerance is wearing thin and as a society I don’t think we should support this kind of life.

    1. Keith Olsen

      I agree with Sharla here.

      Are the Bad Old Days Here Again?

      When I read the title of this article I couldn’t help thinking that it might be referring to the bad old days of the wild west where anything goes and crime was rampant.


    2. David Greenwald

      “Tolerance is wearing thin and as a society I don’t think we should support this kind of life.”

      The question is how best to deal with.

    3. Tia Will

      While I empathize with Sharla’s position, what we need is a better option than forced treatment of incarceration. It is on this “better alternative” that we should be focusing our efforts.

      I would also like to point out the inequity of this approach. For example, what if the disorder causing this behavior is not meth use, but rather psychosis or dementia? Do we allow a police officer to make this diagnosis and incarcerate for one year based on his/her assessment? I doubt anyone would see that as a reasonable solution, and yet that is what this bill would do for drug abuse disorders.

      1. Sharla Cheney

        He rejects all offers of shelter and housing, offers of all resources.  He trashes the park and makes sections of it unusable until people from the neighborhood clean up after him. He eats out of the garbage cans.  He will never voluntarily address his addiction (and his likely mental illness) and I think he is not in a condition to be able to make this decision.  It has been over 3 years.  This is not compassionate treatment of someone clearly unable to care for themselves.

        1. Tia Will

          I agree with you, Sharla, that this is not compassionate treatment of this individual. But we have another option for those who are truly unable to take care of their own needs. It is called conservatorship and can be long or shorter term as necessary.

          Many cases are not as straightforward as this one may, or may not be. Yes, there are times when the problem of substance abuse may be obvious. But what is rarely obvious to a lay individual is how the person arrived at this point and what comorbidities they may have. AB 1542 makes no attempt to address these issues.

          For example, using this case to illustrate, let’s suppose the individual started the use of meth to alleviate some form of pain. Treatment might be very different if the source of pain was psychosis, or autism, or sexual or physical abuse. Each would be treated very differently but might be completely missed by a police officer assessing the crime and the meth. I am not arguing for the status quo. I am arguing that medical decision-making should not be placed on our police…ever. AB1542 does exactly this.











          1. Don Shor

            How does one get an unwilling individual who is living on the streets into a conservatorship?

        2. Sharla Cheney

          Could a conservator commit him, involuntarily, to an institution for mental health and substance abuse treatment?  Or would they just add an additional person who will offering help that is declined?   When I talk to people about him, I’m told to call the police and they will come deal with it.  We ask the police to do this, so why not give them the power to do more than just caution him or arrest him and take him to jail.  There could be a crisis team that would evaluate if the person needs to be diverted to treatment, comprised of psychologists, psychiatrists, public health officials and the police.


        3. Eric Gelber

          Pursuant to the LPS Act, if the police believe there is probable cause to believe the person is unable to provide for food, clothing and shelter due to a mental disorder, they can detain him on a “5150” for 72 hours. There are further provisions for further detention, ultimately potentially resulting in a conservatorship. The conservator would have the authority to obtain treatment and determine residence, which, if there’s no less restrictive alternative, could include a locked facility. If there’s no relative willing to serve as conservator, the Public Guardian can be appointed.

          Just being homeless or exhibiting symptoms of a mental disorder is not sufficient if the individual is able to provide for him/her/their self, with or without assistance from others.

          Unlike AB 1542, LPS contains procedural safeguards and strict standards to protect the individual’s liberty interests.

  3. Tia Will

    As an MD, I have some thoughts about AB 1542:

    1. It asks for a non-licensed individual to make a medical diagnosis. Substance abuse disorders are extensively cataloged in the DSM V. I am quite sure that police officers are not versed in this widely used medical text. Further, the law does not specify corroboration of the officer’s on-site assessment by a qualified medical professional.

    2. Further, the law does not specify that the detained individual must admit to a substance abuse disorder, thus confirming the officer’s impression.

    3. This means that one untrained individual’s impression can be used to detain an individual for up to one year involuntarily. Not only is this a gross injustice, but it is also potentially dangerous if the officer is wrong. In medicine, there are a host of mental and a few physical disorders that can mimic the effects of substance abuse. What is the recourse if the officer is incorrect?

    4. Finally, when did we come to the conclusion that a medical illness…any medical illness…should be treated with a year’s involuntary incarceration regardless of the potential for treatment? Would we for instance incarcerate a diabetic who had stolen money to pay for life-saving insulin in order to “get their condition under control”? I think not.

    For the above reasons, as well as those laid out by the author, I see AB 1542 as a dramatic step in the wrong direction.



    1. Bill Marshall

      For all the reasons cited, (and those, unexplicably, deleted by ‘censors’), can we all agree we should comminicate to our Assembly, State Senate reps, that the bill should die?  I’m there, and will communicate that to my reps… everyone else can choose as they wish… but nothing will come from the “chatter” on this thread… if you have an opinion, contact your rep(s) as I will…

      I was censored [deleted post](on this thread), and might be again for writing this… but we need to make our views known to the actual law-makers…  or simply accept whatever they do… ‘fish, or cut bait’…

      1. Alan Miller

        (and those, unexplicably, deleted by ‘censors’)

        there were reasons deleted by censors?  Why?  What was said that can’t be said?

        I was censored [deleted post](on this thread),

        You were?  What did you say?

        and might be again for writing this… but we need to make our views known to the actual law-makers…

        What views?  You have views that need to be censored?  What views were those?  What views do you have that are so dangerous that they must be censored?

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