A decade and a half ago, Californians passed a ballot measure to provide drug offenders with treatment instead of jail time. Recently, a state appeals court clarified Proposition 36, saying addiction treatment must be given, unless the offender poses a danger to the public.
The case stems from a parolee who was sentenced to county jail for drug possession. After the jail term, he was given a parole violation and sent to state prison. He challenged the prison sentence, saying he should have been given drug treatment according to the 2000 ballot measure, and the court agreed that he should not have been sent to prison.
As I reflect on my own struggles, the concept of drug rehabilitation instead of prison is personal because all the crimes I committed were directly tied to my addiction.
Now, as I wait to see if I will qualify for the elderly parole program known as SB 224, which would allow me to appear before the parole board and seek suitability, I envision getting out of prison after 15 or 25 years and going home to my loved ones. Release in 15 years would be contingent upon SB 224 passing, while release within 25 years would be possible under the current policy.
I’m excited by the prospect of not waking up to a guard’s voice blaring over a loud speaker, chow release fifth tier, work release, the yard opening or hearing my name being called to report somewhere. It will be a new life once I get out of prison, and there will be a set of rules different from those I have dealt with while locked up.
“You didn’t learn the first time.
Maybe this time you’ll learn something”
I envision having a job and making new friends. My new friends will probably be accustomed to going out for a beer or two after work. When they do, I won’t be able to join them because I can’t drink. I don’t want to be in an environment where I could easily slip up.
But as much as I try to be careful, there’s always “The Test.”
It will happen one day when one of my new friends edges me on, not understanding that I must abide by a different set of rules.
I’m familiar with this type of peer pressure. The old me had so many tests like this, brought about when I didn’t want to feel left out by not joining the party. Back then I failed those tests by not recognizing how peer pressure made my addiction harder to deal with.
It took me years of incarceration and programs to understand why I felt the way I did. I learned I had abandonment issues and was afraid, and that I wanted to be accepted — to fit in.
My drug and alcohol addiction led me to commit crime after crime. Each time, when I was caught and put in jail, I would beg for help. However, the system wasn’t geared to look at my addiction and how I dealt with it differently.
In 1974, a judge told me, “You didn’t learn the first time. Maybe this time you’ll learn something.” I was sent to prison, where the help I needed was not available, yet drugs were everywhere.
It wasn’t that I didn’t want to learn as the judge said; I just didn’t know what I had to learn. I didn’t know about techniques that would help me change my criminal or addictive thinking or how to manage my emotions. That’s what addiction does to you, and it’s something the criminal justice system needs to understand. Many courts and substance abuse experts have only recently found that addiction is not a crime, but a disease.
Looking back on my life, what I’ve learned is that it doesn’t matter where an addict is — if they ask for help and are not helped, their negative behavior will continue. Addicts who are locked up need more opportunities for treatment. If not, bad choices will continue to negatively affect everybody — guards, prisoners and, once released, the community again.
The solution is not so difficult. No matter the crime, if an individual is suffering from addiction, the best policy is treatment. Treating the addiction would stop the criminal behavior that drives them to support the drug habit. It would make the community safer by default.
Lately, some lifers are being sent back to prison because of substance abuse. They’re explaining where they went wrong to the board, to their fellow inmates and to their supporters.
Seeing inmates returned to prison for being under the influence made me consider the idea behind Prop. 36 and the different set of rules applied to convicts and parolees.
All of the lifers who are back because they violated the substance abuse clause in their parole terms must appear before the parole board for a suitability hearing. The question the board should asks itself is basic: “Did using drugs while on parole make you a danger to public safety?” If the answer it finds is “yes,” the inmate has to reappear before the board in a year and try again. This process can go on indefinitely.
The same dilemma has another feature for lifers who are doing time and need to establish a parole date: If that person is caught using drugs in prison and given a rules violation, then he or she has to explain to the board why they were using drugs and why treatment was not sought.
Most of the time, the board tells the person to get treatment and schedules the next parole date at three years. There’s a provision that allows the person to come back in one year, if there are extraordinary circumstances or new evidence to support an earlier hearing. But, in the extreme case, the board is fully authorized to schedule the next hearing 15 years later.
In California, there are multiple ways to deal with addiction, depending on who is evaluating the person and where that person is living. If the addict is on the streets, there is one set of rules. If the person is locked up, there’s another.
I end with this question: If someone has cancer and treatment requires several doses of chemotherapy to cure him, is locking him up for treatment necessary?