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Drug Court Program in California

November 2, 2000

AUBURN, Calif. (AP) _ Justin Gish admits he has a heroin problem. But with the help of a court-based program that combines treatment with the threat of incarceration, he’s hoping to stay clean _ and out of jail.

Along with treatment and counseling, drug courts subject offenders to regular drug testing and impose brief jail sentences for those who fail.

``It keeps you honest,″ said Gish, 22, of Roseville. ``They’re doing it to help you, not to punish you.″

The program, used in California and elsewhere, stems from a realization by judges and prosecutors a decade ago that they needed a new tool to battle the crush of drug addicts clogging courts and prisons.

Offenders admitted to the program appear, as often as once a week, in court before an administrator to review their progress.

In California’s Placer County, Court Commissioner Colleen Nichols holds her weekly drug court inside the county jail. Bailiffs pounce on offenders who have tested positive for drugs, skip treatment or otherwise break her strict rules. Soon, they are whisked away to serve short jail sentences.

Those who stay clean, on the other hand, are rewarded with Nichols’ praise and applause from the dozens of other drug offenders waiting their turn. They emerge from her jammed courtroom beaming, often to hugs from spouses or children. Most will have their records wiped clean once they complete the program.

There are nearly 700 such courts nationwide and at least 300 more are planned. They are in 48 of California’s 58 counties, and the rest will have them by year’s end, said Santa Clara County Superior Court Judge Stephen Manley, president of the California Association of Drug Court Professionals.

Drug courts reflect a recognition by politicians, judges and prosecutors that simply jailing addicts doesn’t work without treatment, Attorney General Bill Lockyer said.

Lockyer and others said that effort would be harmed by a drug treatment measure on California’s Nov. 7 ballot.

Proposition 36 would ban incarceration for many first- and second-time drug offenders, instead sending them to treatment programs and ending the jail sentences at the heart of the drug courts’ strategy.

A poll published last Thursday by the Los Angeles Times found that 54 percent of likely voters support the measure, with 28 percent opposed.

``One of the cornerstones is accountability and consequences,″ said Nichols, who has been running her drug court for 2 1/2 years. ``Without that, you have a whole group of people who have no reason to be clean and sober.″

Participants in Placer County’s 12- to 18-month program said it is the frequent testing and threat of jail that forces them to stay clean.

``If people don’t have sanctions, if they don’t have consequences, then they don’t have reasons not to use,″ said Cory Layton, 19, who entered the program a year ago and is scheduled to graduate next month.

Steven Belenko of the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse in New York found in a study that drug courts were more effective than other community treatment programs, and had lower re-arrest rates for graduates.


On the Net:

Proposition 36 at http://www.ss.ca.gov

National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse: http://www.casacolumbia.org

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