By David M. Greenwald
Last year, AB 1542, authored by Assemblymember Kevin McCarty and co-sponsored by Yolo DA Jeff Reisig, rolled through both houses of the legislature but was stymied by Governor Gavin Newsom, who returned it without his signature.
A similar bill, AB 1928 is now making its way through the legislature. Again introduced by Assemblymember McCarty, the bill would expand the pilot program to include San Joaquin, Contra Costa, and Santa Clara Counties n addition to Yolo, but “also provide opioid settlement funds to backstop treatment costs in the event costs were not Medi-Cal reimbursable.”
The Board of Supervisors will be asked whether to support it this week.
However, staff notes, “the Health and Human Services Agency was not of the opinion that alternative sentencing options provided by the bill were necessary due to the recent implementation of the Crisis Now program, a 24/7 crisis & access line, mobile crisis team, and crisis receiving/sobering center. “
The subcommittee, however, supported the bill and staff drafted and have drafted a letter of support.
The bill would allow Yolo County and the other counties to “establish a secured drug treatment facility where felony offenders could be sentenced and treated for substance use disorders rather than going to jail or prison.
“The intent of such a program would be to address gaps in the current criminal justice and rehabilitation system which have resulted in those suffering from substance abuse cycling in and out of local jails without a clear pathway to treatment,” the letter reads. “In supporting this bill we acknowledge the existing tools to address substance abuse disorders, particularly among those who are frequently involved with our criminal justice system, are not sufficient to address this issue which has sadly become all too pervasive in our community and other communities across our state.”
Last week the bill passed out of the Public Safety Committee.
Yolo County Supervisor Gary Sandy said, following the vote, “The population we are looking at is ill and suffers from serious drug addictions. But they also are committing significant crimes in our communities which must be addressed. We need to try something new and this bill will give those who would be spending time in jail or prison a choice and opportunity to get the help they need in a secure facility. It’s the humane way to treat them.”
DA Jeff Reisig, testifying by phone, told the committee that “too many people who suffer from substance use disorder are going to jail or prison for crimes that are motivated by their addiction. And prison is not a place where people, who are sick, go to get better.
“So instead, AB 1928 envisions creating a secure hospital-like treatment facility without jails and bars and guards and guns that can serve as a sanctuary for seriously addicted felony offenders who voluntarily choose to try local community-based treatment and wrap-around services in a safe and secure setting right here at home instead of being shipped off and warehoused behind bars and we’re calling this place Hope California.”
The bill would allow the counties to develop “a secured treatment facility for individuals who are criminally justice involved and who live with substance use disorders.”
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.” However, those who commit misdemeanors, simple drug possession, sex offenses, and strike offenses “would not be eligible.”
Once they have completed the secure inpatient program, “they would move to a residential treatment facility or receive intensive outpatient treatment. The treatment plan for each individual would be based on the assessment and recommendation of the treatment providers.”
After completing the program, the current charges and prior drug convictions would be dismissed and expunged from their record so they can get a fresh start.
“For many individuals suffering from SUDs, residential and professionally conducted evidence-based treatment programs are the best, or at times only, option for getting this population well,” a release from Kevin McCarty stated.
“SUD is a public health issue, not a public safety issue and needs to be treated as such,” said Assemblymember Kevin McCarty. “We need to help people with their addictions through treatment instead of throwing them in jail. This voluntary program will help those get the treatment needed, which will ultimately help reduce the recidivism rate.”
“Those who suffer from substance use disorders and subsequent mental health issues should receive services to assist in making them well,” said San Joaquin County District Attorney Tori Verber Salazar. “We all can name a friend, family member, or a member in our community who is struggling. By passing legislation like AB 1928, we can better address the underlying issues driving petty crime and focus on building a safer, healthier community.”
“I strongly support alternatives to incarceration for individuals who have committed non-violent crimes and whose crime is driven by an uncontrolled drug addiction,” said Santa Clara District Attorney Jeff Rosen. “The HOPE program will give us a vital tool to protect the community while providing a much needed treatment opportunity for those struggling with addiction. We are honored to pilot this new program.”
“Too many people who suffer from substance use disorder are going to jail or prison for crimes that are motivated by their addiction. And prison is not a place where people who are sick, go to get better,” said Yolo County District Attorney Jeff Reisig, as previously indicated. “So instead, AB 1928 envisions creating a secure hospital-like treatment facility without jails, bars, guards and guns that can serve as a sanctuary for seriously addicted felony offenders. Offenders would have the option to choose a local community-based treatment program with wrap-around services in a safe and secure setting instead of being shipped off and warehoused behind bars—we’re calling this place Hope California.”
It’s unclear whether AB 1928 has addressed the objections from the governor that led him to not sign the legislation in 2021.
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 Rodriguez 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.”