By David M. Greenwald
Woodland, CA – Last week AB 1542 was approved by the Assembly Committee on Public Safety, and the bill would establish a pilot program in Yolo County, that proponents say would “provide a second chance opportunity for individuals struggling with substance use disorder and attempt to curb the substance use issues.”
The bill would establish a pilot program that would provide a secured drug treatment facility where “felony offenders could be sentenced and treated for substance use disorders rather than serving a jail or prison sentence.”
However, the bill has drawn considerable opposition from justice reform advocates, drug policy groups and mental health groups.
The Board of Supervisors is set to hear a presentation on Yolo County drug treatment options which will “seek to illustrate the tools represented by Assembly Bill (AB) 1542 as well as local drug treatment concepts that might serve as opportunities for combating this issue.”
The CAO (County Administrator Office) in their staff report notes, “Yolo County, like many other jurisdictions throughout California, is currently grappling with drug addiction and how to best facilitate rehabilitation and recovery for individuals experiencing substance use disorders.”
They believe “that existing resources for substance use disorders are not sufficient and require supplemental funding and/or programs to combat this issue. Furthermore, these issues are compounded upon by repeat offenders or high utilizers that interact with the criminal justice system often, are continually in and out of jail, and may pose a threat to themselves or others in the community.”
According to the staff report, AB 1542, sponsored by Assemblymember Kevin McCarty, is “not its final form” with the Assemblymember “acknowledging a desire to work with the opposition to address issues namely regarding concerns that the diversionary program established in the bill, though voluntary, will be coercive in practice with defendants choosing treatment to avoid incarceration rather than out of a desire to overcome addiction.”
Staff put together two local alternatives that would “fill the substance use disorder gap like the proposed AB 1452 legislation and pilot program but would not require additional statutory authority.”
The first would “direct a County pilot program focused on the 1170(h) population suffering from a substance use disorder, thus homing in on a targeted population with a program that, depending on the results, could be scaled up for use in other populations suffering from substance use disorders.”
The second would “adapt and enhance the Crisis Now model, which is comprised of a 24/7 crisis/access line, crisis response teams, and a 24/7 receiving center.”
Writes the CAO, “This concept has been referred to as the Portugal Project, based on Portugal’s success with treating substance use disorders as a public health matter rather than a criminal justice matter. This concept would develop a team of 24/7 crisis responders who would be available when law enforcement comes into contact with individuals under the influence and/or engaged in drug-related behaviors that would traditionally lead to being cited and released or incarcerated and released.”
Staff writes, “When not responding to calls, staff would conduct outreach, engagement, and provide resources to high utilizers of the criminal justice system due to their substance use disorders. This concept has been tentatively estimated to cost $1 million per year to cover the cost of staff and operations 24/7. Additionally, if a 24/7 receiving center were to be implemented as part of this concept, the cost has been estimated at approximately $3-4 million per year to operate. There are several funding streams that might be eligible for this type of work, but they have not been finalized.”
As the Vanguard has reported in the police discussion, “the Crisis Now model is being actively worked on by County staff toward implementation.”
As staff notes, the bill has received significant opposition from a variety of interests: including human rights, criminal justice reform, public health, and substance use treatment.
Writes staff, “One common thread of their concerns about the policy of this bill is rooted in the concept that involuntary treatment is ineffective, expensive and likely to be counter-productive.”
Staff notes: “Despite widespread implementation of involuntary drug treatment worldwide, there appears to be little available, high-quality research on its effectiveness.”
Some studies, however, show that “mandated treatment was ineffective, particularly when the treatment was located in custodial settings, whereas voluntary treatment produced significant treatment effect sizes regardless of setting.”
In addition, the NIH study found that “[e]vidence does not, on the whole, suggest improved outcomes related to compulsory treatment approaches, with some studies suggesting potential harms.”
The study continued, “Given the potential for human rights abuses within compulsory treatment settings, non-compulsory treatment modalities should be prioritized by policymakers seeking to reduce drug-related harms.”
Opponents of the bill agree with the conclusions of these study and argue “potential harms resulting from compulsory treatment include increased risk of overdose and fostering distrust between treatment providers and patients, causing people who need help to be unlikely to seek it out in the future. They further suggest spending money on voluntary treatment programs instead of compulsory ones.”
Staff notes, “Although the bill ostensibly requires the consent of the defendant prior to being sentenced into the program, the procedure by which a defendant chooses to participate may be coercive.”
The bill would require the judge, at the time of sentencing, to offer participation to the defendant in lieu of jail or prison time.
Writes staff, “Most people, when faced with the prospect of prison or jail, or likely to submit themselves to almost any reasonable alternative. But that does not mean the person has the willingness or ability to succeed in drug treatment.”
Opponents argue that this becomes de facto incarceration by another name—and at times for conduct that would not generate prison or custodial time under other circumstances.
“Coerced treatment isn’t proven to be better than voluntary treatment, it doesn’t have better outcomes to threaten people with incarceration or force them into a locked facility,” said Glenn Backes, a social worker and Public Policy Researcher with Drug Policy Alliance told the Vanguard in March.
He also noted that the cost of such a program is much higher than a comparable voluntary program, and he argues we have not invested in an adequate voluntary treatment.
“It is much more cost-effective to invest to create the treatment opportunities, housing opportunities in the community to get people off the streets and to reduce their drug use rather than to threaten to put someone in jail if they don’t do this,” he said. “To put someone in jail is not cost-effective and it’s not science-based.”
Community treatment in Yolo County and in California is up, he said, as we have invested money saved from reduced incarceration into voluntary treatment—the problem, he said, is that we lack enough facilities right now to handle that voluntary treatment.
The Vanguard will host a webinar on AB 1542 featuring Assemblymember Kevin McCarty and some of the policy experts on April 30 at noon. Details forthcoming.
—David M. Greenwald reporting
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