Letter: Human Rights Watch’s Opposition to AB 1542

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The following is a letter from the Human Rights Watch to Assemblymember Reggie Jones-Sawyer, Chair of the Public Safety Committee and Assemblymember Kevin McCarty, author of AB 152.

Human Rights Watch opposes the AB 1542 Yolo County pilot program that authorizes judges to sentence people to confinement in a locked treatment facility instead of prison or jail if the judge determines that their crime was motivated in part by substance abuse. We ask legislators to reject this bill and take a more holistic, rights-respecting approach to addressing problematic substance use and crime that may be connected to it.

The apparent premise of AB 1542 is that people with “Substance Use Disorders” (SUDs) have a medical condition that is best addressed through treatment as opposed to punishment. Human Rights Watch supports increasing the availability of evidence-based voluntary treatment for people who struggle with problematic use of psychoactive substances. However, this bill proposes forcing people involuntarily into “secured” or locked treatment, regulated by the courts, thus blurring the lines between medical care and punishment, and undermining the goal of helping those in need. It runs directly counter to the principle of free and informed consent to mental health treatment, which is a cornerstone of the right to health. Conflating health treatment and jailing, as envisioned by AB 1542, risks substantial human rights abuse, is ineffective as a treatment, and takes resources and policy focus away from initiatives that are much more likely to help people.

AB 1542 Conflates Treatment with Punishment

AB 1542 would give judges power to sentence people convicted of crimes to “secured residential treatment” facilities if the judges determine that those people have SUDs that in any way contributed to the crime for which they were convicted. Convictions for most criminal offenses, including trespassing, theft, delaying a police officer, drug sales and others, would be eligible.3 Convictions for simple drug possession, sex crimes, or statutorily defined “serious” or “violent” crimes, would be excluded. Judges would be responsible for overseeing that treatment.

However, judges lack the medical training or knowledge required to decide if a person has a medical condition or if substance use motivated their crime or to make decisions on the course of a person’s treatment. The bill does not require an evidentiary hearing to assess these underlying conditions; the health and human services agency conducts an assessment, but only after a person has been ordered into the locked treatment. Further, judges’ decisions, particularly in overseeing progress in the program, may be influenced by factors related to punishment rather than prioritizing therapeutic benefit.

While billed as an alternative to incarceration, permitting judges to confine people to a locked treatment facility essentially authorizes their imprisonment in that facility, even if there is an involuntary treatment component.

AB 1542 Standards Deny Due Process

The decision-making process envisioned by AB 1542 lacks defined standards, raising serious concerns about due process. The bill requires arresting police officers to write a “probable cause declaration” stating that the person arrested has an SUD and that the crime was drug related. Police officers are not qualified to make such a diagnosis. The bill says nothing about procedures or standards for how courts are to make the ultimate decision, other than to permit judges to sentence people to the locked treatment if they determine the crime was caused in part by an SUD. Judges also lack training to make such diagnoses, and the bill establishes no fact-finding procedure beyond the judges’ subjective beliefs. This pilot threatens to create a separate legal track for people perceived to have SUDs, with lowered due process, negatively implicating basic rights. 

The bill does call for consultation with the healthcare provider, but it does not establish the nature of that consultation. It requires courts to use a risk and needs assessment tool to recommend the length and intensity of treatment upon entering the program. By specifying “tool” as opposed to calling for a clinical assessment, this bill raises the specter of using formulaic checklists or algorithms to make diagnoses, instead of having health professionals conduct interactive examinations that allow for detailed input from patients. Risk assessment tools used in other aspects of the criminal legal system are known to produce racially discriminatory results, to reduce complex personal histories to out of context data-points, and to have adjustable scoring systems that can be used to increase incarceration rates regardless of need.  These tools should not be used to inform judicial decisions, especially as to medical treatment.

Even if amended to create stronger judicial procedures, to elevate input from treatment providers, and to remove the use of risk assessment tools, this program would remain objectionable because it is premised on coercing people into a locked treatment facility.

Coerced Treatment Violates Human Rights

Under international human rights law, all people have the right to “the highest attainable standard of mental health.” Free and informed consent, including the right to refuse treatment, is a core element of that right to health. People have a right to be free from forced mental health treatment. Having a “substitute” decision-maker, including a judge, make orders for health care can deny a person their rights and infringe on their personal autonomy in health care. The World Health Organization condemns involuntary mental health treatments as inconsistent with international human rights standards. Due to the coercive circumstances under which the AB 1524 sentencing would take place, the treatment would not be voluntary.

In practice, courts will use the threat of jail or prison time to pressure people to plead guilty to a sentence of treatment, regardless of whether those people are independently willing or ready to accept treatment, and in many cases even if they do not need treatment. Prosecutors could simply

demand longer prison or jail sentences in plea negotiations to leverage people into accepting this treatment “voluntarily.” This coerced process for imposing “treatment” undermines any therapeutic aim of the bill. Further, judges will be able to re-sentence to jail or prison if a person does not adequately comply with the terms of the locked program, meaning that the coercion continues throughout the course of treatment.

The pilot program, as currently written, envisions sentencing people accused of misdemeanors and lower-level felonies to these locked facilities. People who would otherwise face little or no time in custody on these charges may be pressured into locked treatment if the judge or prosecutor wills it. Even if amended to limit application to felonies, the same pressure will remain. Time incarcerated in treatment can exceed time expected to be spent serving traditional jail or prison sentences for such crimes, as long as it does not exceed the maximum allowable term.  AB 1542 requires the judge to decide the length of time spent in the locked facility, unlike voluntary treatment which should be determined by the health professional and patient together.

AB 1524 requires treatment providers to report the person’s therapeutic progress to the court, including to prosecutors who have an inherently adversarial relationship with the person, to probation officers, and to judges; it requires Yolo County to collect that individual’s data and to report it to the state. It allows probation officers and prosecutors to have input into the course of treatment.  These provisions violate the right to confidentiality, a key component of the right to health. This violation will undermine patient-healthcare provider relationships that are necessary to successful treatment outcomes. By requiring healthcare providers to report treatment progress to the courts, including temporary failures in treatment, this bill compromises medical ethics requiring loyalty to patients. Healthcare providers should be working directly with their patients, without outside interference especially from courts, to create good health outcomes.

Coerced Treatment is Ineffective

The coercion involved in this approach to treatment not only encourages abuse and violation of basic rights, it is also ineffective. Like more traditional drug courts, this pilot may result in courts sentencing people who do not actually need treatment, wasting their time, and diverting resources from those who do. For treatment to work, people generally must be willing and ready to accept it; compulsory treatment ignores this reality.30 Blurring lines between treatment and incarceration,

California Should Invest in Voluntary Treatment and Supportive Services

Investing in carceral, involuntary treatment shifts resources away from providing voluntary treatment and the services necessary to make that treatment effective. Instead of investing in locked facilities, Yolo County and the State of California could scale up treatment capacity for people who need and want to access it. Providing well-resourced community-based options and removing barriers to treatment will help people mitigate problematic substance use.

An initial draft of the pilot program bill explicitly stated that it was designed to address the homeless population in Yolo County, which has grown substantially in recent years.37 The bill as introduced removed most of that language from its introduction, but the content of the pilot remains the same. Without addressing the need for housing and ongoing services, it is unlikely that locked treatment will help people experiencing homelessness improve their situation.

Yolo County and California would more effectively address these problems by providing more affordable housing and voluntary services and health care, instead of spending resources on incarcerating people in the name of treatment.

AB 1542 is simply a plan for more incarceration under the guise of treatment. More harmfully, it co- opts the language of the movement to address health problems related to crime with supportive solutions and redirects it toward more imprisonment. We ask that you reject this harmful pilot program and, instead, direct resources towards making voluntary treatment and other necessary services accessible to all.


John Raphling

Senior Researcher, US Program Human Rights Watch

About The Author

Disclaimer: the views expressed by guest writers are strictly those of the author and may not reflect the views of the Vanguard, its editor, or its editorial board.

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  1. Eric Gelber

    The letter makes a strong case against forced treatment. I would add the fact that the pilot program would act as a disincentive to expending funds on developing evidence-based voluntary approaches that are more effective and respect individuals’ fundamental rights.

  2. David Greenwald

    One thing that is interesting here – this bill has put Yolo County onto the radar of many in the state, but not in a good way.  It has become a rallying point for reformers to oppose the bill.  I’m sure that’s not how Reisig really intended this to go.

  3. Alan Miller

    The devil is in the addiction.  And the devil is in the details.

    Can someone explain the working definition of ‘forced treatment’ ?  Does it mean you are forced to go through a treatment program?  Or does it mean you are given the option of being forced to go to prison OR forced to go through a treatment program?

    Do we currently not have evidence-based voluntary treatment?  Is there not enough beds in facilities to accept those that volunteer to go through a program?  If so, I am for more being made available.  But most drug addicts don’t volunteer, so beyond the capacity to treat those that do (and going through a program does not guarantee results – not by a long shot), what other means are possible?

    1. David Greenwald

      It appears that the diversion is at the discretion of the court: “At the time of sentencing or pronouncement of judgment in which sentencing is imposed, if the court determines that the defendant’s crime was caused in whole or in part by that individual’s SUD, as an alternative to jail, the court may divert the individual and sentence them to confinement in a secured residential treatment facility within the pilot program.” Note that the court is “diverting” the individual and sentencing them to “confinement” in a “secured” facility. So it doesn’t appear at the discretion of the individual.

      1. Bill Marshall

        So it doesn’t appear at the discretion of the individual.

        Aye, there is the rub…

        It has been pretty much established that any path towards getting “off” addictions, is doomed to failure, if it is coerced, or not actively sought by the individual addicted… failure…

        Unless the individual, once “de-toxed”, makes the personal decision ‘to get clean’… possible, but not a ‘given’…  one needs to look at cost/benefit/likelihood of success, of mandatory treatment…

    2. Eric Gelber

      The bill has no adequate due process procedure or standards to determine that a crime was committed as a result of a SUD. In other contexts, involuntary treatment requires a right to a jury and proof beyond a reasonable doubt that commitment criteria are met.  Not so here. The judge merely decides based on no specified standard.

      Under the bill, the length of involuntary detention can be as long as the maximum sentence—longer than most would be imprisoned.

      Other diversion programs provide diversion  as an option prior to conviction—when there’s the possibility of acquittal, plea bargain, etc. Not entirely non-coercive but at least there’s choice involved.

      For those without financial resources or insurance, quality voluntary treatment options are unavailable or severely limited.

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