A new study by researchers at UCLA provides some ammunition for supporters of a California law, passed in 2000, that mandates treatment instead of jail for non-violent offenders arrested on a drug-related crime, according to the New York Times.
The study found that the California Substance Abuse and Crime Prevention Act (SACPA) of 2000 provided $2.50 in benefits for every $1 invested by taxpayers, or a total of $1.5 billion over five years. Individuals who completed their court-mandated treatment program produced $4 in benefits for every $1 invested.
While these cost savings are impressive, it's not clear that the legislation is achieving the kinds of reductions in drug use and recidivism that its authors intended. For example, according to the report, only 34 percent of individuals who entered the program completed between 90 days and a year of drug treatment, an important step because treatment retention is an important indicator of long-term sobriety. Compare that to drug courts, which have about a 60 percent one-year treatment retention rate.
In addition, the report shows that conviction and arrest costs were higher for SACPA participants than a control group, driven largely by a small group of about 1,000 "high-impact" defendants who entered the program with five or more prior convictions.
Opinions differ about how to improve graduation rates and deal with high-impact defendants, who, according to the legislation, have the same right to treatment as a jail alternative as any other defendant. Some, following the drug court model, argue that the answer is to empower courts to mete out graduated sanctions and rewards to encourage compliance, or to modify the legislation to limit program entry to individuals with fewer than five convictions. It's clear, however, that any changes to the legislation will be resisted by its authors, who fear replacing a "treatment" model with a "punishment" model.
I'm interested in the California story, because it's an example of a very different model of institutionalization (and very different philosophy about the compatability of punishment and help) than Bronx Community Solutions. As a ballot initiative passed by 61 percent of the Calfornia electorate, SACPA can only be changed through additional legislation, which makes it tough to make mid-course corrections. It also imposed a host of new obligations on counties that may not be prepared to meet them.
On the other hand, SACPA has created profound statewide change in just a few years, helped by an annual influx of $120 million state dollars for drug treatment and other services. It's a tough trade-off: is it better to spread a new approach quickly, or move more slowly to make sure that it's being implemented effectively?