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Drug war undergoes reform. (Legislative Issues).

In his first nationwide address, broadcast live by the major television networks Sept. 5, 1989, former President George Bush called illegal drugs "the gravest domestic threat facing our nation today," and promised "victory over drugs."

In the years following Bush's promise, with mixed results, the nation began a policy of increasing penalties for drug-related offenses. Drug use arrests declined in the years immediately following the president's declaration. However, the number of people arrested for drug use has since rebounded, partly due to sentencing policies mandating minimum sentences for a variety of drug offenses, placing an increasing burden on the criminal justice system -- especially the nation's prison system.

The fight against drugs took a new direction with passage of California's Proposition 36, the Substance Abuse and Crime Prevention Act of 2000, which was approved by California voters Nov. 7, 2000. The ballot initiative marked the most significant change in California state law since three strikes legislation and its impact has forced numerous additional changes within California's judicial processes and substance abuse treatment systems.

More important, the California initiative marked the beginning of a movement among advocates of reform to alternate methods of influencing public policy. Rather than relying on lobbying efforts directed toward the executive and legislative branches of state and federal government, advocates took their case directly to the people. The successful use of the ballot box in California, and the subsequent success in Arizona, where Proposition 200 was enacted in 1996, has spurred advocates to further explore this avenue of reform. In November, there will be sentencing reform proposals on the ballot in Florida, Michigan and Ohio.

Ballot initiatives not only have been successful in enacting reform in the states where they have appeared on the ballot, but they also have furthered the debate in other states as well. The growing interest has led to increased debate within government circles regarding the logic of mandatory sentencing for some drug offenses.

Earlier this year, Gov. George E. Pataki proposed a comprehensive 10-point reform package that balances the need to crack down on drug kingpins, armed drug felons and dealers who prey on children with proposals to address overly severe provisions within New York state's current drug laws.

Pataki's proposal substantially reduces the statutory minimum sentences for many drug offenders and nonviolent repeat felony drug offenders, eliminates mandatory state prison terms for certain repeat drug offenders, and significantly increases felony penalties for drug kingpins and armed drug felons. The plan would implement a prerelease transitional program for drug offenders returning to New York City, enhance felony penalties for dealers using minors to sell drugs, increase penalties for those who sell drugs on the Internet and require all parolees to be randomly drug tested at least four times per year.

On June 16, Hawaii Gov. Ben Cayetano (D) signed into law a comprehensive sentencing bill (Senate Bill 1188) that mandates probation and drug treatment in lieu of incarceration for first-time, nonviolent drug offenders. "The administration introduced this bill because we do not believe that just putting someone in jail is the solution to their drug problems," Cayetano said during a signing ceremony for the legislation. "More often than not, without treatment, a person will slip back into drug use." The legislation is similar to the voter initiatives enacted in Arizona and California.

Growing public support for sentencing alternatives played a major role in the success of ballot initiatives across the country, as well as in legislative reforms in several states. Public support has proved to be especially strong for programs that divert nonviolent offenders from incarceration into other forms of punishment and rehabilitation, especially when programs are combined with treatment or restitution. Thus, further movement away from tough mandatory sentences for drug offenders and an increased emphasis on treatment options can be expected.

Will this approach to the drug war be successful? Only time will tell. But the work of reform advocates cannot end with changes in sentencing laws. They must continue working to ensure that treatment facilities have adequate resources to meet the additional demand and that the stigma associated with seeking treatment does not prevent people from seeking it. These challenges are as daunting as taking an issue to the voters. There is still a lot of work ahead.

RELATED ARTICLE: California Proposition 36

Under the act, certain nonviolent adult offenders who use or possess illegal drugs receive drug treatment in the community rather than incarceration. It was designed to:

* Preserve jail and prison cells for serious and violent offenders;

* Enhance public safety by reducing drug-related crime; and

* Improve public health by reducing drug abuse through proven and effective treatment strategies.

Eligible offenders receive up to one year of drug treatment and six months of aftercare. The courts may sanction offenders who are not amenable to treatment. Vocational training, family counseling, literacy training and other services also may be provided to offenders under the act.

Joey R. Weedon is manager of government affairs for the American Correctional Association. He can be reached at (301) 918-1885; e-mail:
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Author:Weedon, Joey R.
Publication:Corrections Today
Article Type:Brief Article
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Aug 1, 2002
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