The Great California Experiment: Penal Reform and Addiction Treatment

The draconian solution to the national drug problem – begun 40 years ago with the so-called “Rockefeller laws” in New York State – has, by almost universal agreement, failed. Despite the push of the Reagan administration in the 1980s, Americans are starting to realize that the government’s policy of “scaring” people out of their drug use with the threat of incarceration simply isn’t going to work.

Today, families, communities, local, state and federal governments are all trying to come up with new ways to address the problem of drug abuse and addiction. But nowhere is the situation grimmer – and more difficult to fix – than in the state of California.

Is California the Worst Case?

The situation in California is arguably the worst as compared to other states in the nation. After instituting tough, zero-tolerance style sentencing following New York’s lead, California’s prison population had mushroomed to 173,000 inmates by 2006. Their prison system’s capacity was thus maxed out more than two times over.

A federal court in 2011 ordered the state to transfer 30,000 inmates out of the system. The state legislature in response passed a law called Assembly Bill (AB) 109, which mandated the transfer of many low-level felons to individual counties. At the same time, the counties were encouraged to find alternatives to incarceration and to beef up drug treatment programs. No state standards were set, however, and while state funds were allocated to the counties to handle the realignment, no funds were earmarked for oversight.

The results, as one might expect, have been mixed. Some counties simply built bigger jails to handle their new charges while paying only lip service to drug treatment. Others followed the spirit of the law much more closely. Consider these two extremes.

  • Kings County put 70 percent of its AB 109 funds into bigger jails and only 2 percent into treatment programs.
  • San Mateo County put 58 percent of its funds into treatment and built no new jails.

Not all of the estimated 100,000 inmates involved in the realignment have been sent to county jails, of course. The new emphasis on treatment rather than incarceration has resulted in many of them having their sentences reduced. But this has not been done without effects on local crime rates. After the realignment began to kick in, in early 2012, the crime rate went up in 40 of the state’s largest cities.

What Happens Next?

The program is still an experiment, of course, and there are many problems. Addiction is notoriously difficult to treat, and recidivism is a chronic problem. Yet this plan does represent a shift from the punitive approach of the past several decades. While that’s a step in the right direction, the American public – and especially families in California – have a few more decades until substantial progress is made. In the meantime, as before, families of an addicted person have one option remaining: to get their loved one the effective treatment necessary to heal. Contact us at Axis today to get started.