By David M. Greenwald
Sacramento, CA – Despite strong opposition from justice reform groups, AB 1542 seemed largely unstoppable after passing the State Assembly on a 65-1 vote and encountering token opposition in the Senate—but the final hurdle proved insurmountable as Governor Newsom exercised his prerogative and vetoed it on Friday.
“I am returning Assembly Bill 1542 without my signature,” Governor Newsom wrote on Friday.
Under 1542, Yolo County would be authorized to “offer a pilot program that would allow individuals struggling with substance use disorders, who have been convicted of qualifying drug-motivated crimes, to be placed in a Secured Residential Treatment Program.”
AB 1542 was authored by Assemblymember Kevin McCarty in partnership with Yolo County District Attorney Jeff Reisig and Yolo County Supervisor Gary Sandy. State Senator Bill Dodd is a co-author.
According to a release from the district attorney’s office earlier this year, “Those eligible for the treatment program would include people who have committed drug motivated felonies that, absent this program, would result in them being sentenced to jail or prison. Those who commit misdemeanors, simple drug possession, sex offenses, and strike offenses would not be eligible.”
However, the bill generated strong opposition in the reform community—many concerned that a secure treatment program is simply incarceration by another name.
As it turned out, Governor Newsom shared those concerns.
“I understand the importance of developing programs that can divert individuals away from the criminal justice system, but coerced treatment for substance use disorder is not the answer,” Governor Newsom wrote.
He continued, “While this pilot would give a person the choice between incarceration and treatment, I am concerned that this is a false choice that effectively leads to forced treatment.”
He added, “I am especially concerned about the effects of such treatment, given that evidence has shown coerced treatment hinders participants’ long-term recovery from their substance use disorder.”
The governor’s concerns were echoed by many in the reform community previously.
In July, DA Candidate Cynthia Rodgiuez in a letter published in the Vanguard, wrote, “AB 1542 would force Yolo citizens with drug and alcohol dependencies into a coerced treatment program that is no different from, or more humane than, existing policies that harm a medically vulnerable population.”
From her view, “coerced, incarcerated ‘treatment’” is really no different from current “failed inhumane policy of criminalizaing substance abuse disorder that currently exists.”
She writes, “Best evidence from professionals in medicine and rehabilitation tells us that coerced programs are rarely followed by any increase in sobriety at all, and they will not alter the medical condition of a person who is coerced to attend this program as an “alternative” to incarceration.”
Back in April, Tyler Rinde, with the County Behavioral Health Directors Association of California, told an Assembly committee that he opposed the bill, arguing “compulsory or coerced SUD treatment is not an effective means of promoting positive clinical outcomes for individuals with substance abuse disorders.”
Rinde added that “offering locked treatment as an alternative to incarceration when the individual would not have otherwise accepted treatment outside of this situation can foster distrust between treatment providers and clients.”
The Human Rights Watch has also been a strong opponent.
In a letter to the Assembly, they wrote, “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.”
“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.”
But despite these deep misgivings, even strong justice reform advocates in both houses of the legislature approved the bill—often with some trepidation.
It got to the governor’s desk, but the governor was not willing to support the concept—even as a pilot program for Yolo County only.