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Unintended Consequence: How Prop 47 tanks drug courts

Judge Matt Anderson presides over his Newport Beach courtroom.
Rina Palta / KPCC
Judge Matt Anderson presides over his Newport Beach courtroom.

On a typical day in Judge Matt Anderson’s Newport Beach courtroom, the room is packed — but mostly with visitors. Drug courts attract academics, treatment professionals and journalists — curious about its effectiveness.

But lately, the courts lack actual participants: 

"The number of people being evaluated for the program is dropping," Anderson says.

Before Proposition 47, Orange County would see between 50 to 80 applications for drug court every month. In the roughly three months since the initiative passed, the county's drug courts received just 12 applications. In Los Angeles County, new admissions dropped 50 percent.

In fact, since the initiative went into effect, the number of people in drug courts in California has plummeted.

Drug courts have been heralded as a successful and humane option for those suffering from drug addiction who find themselves in trouble with the law. But when Prop 47 made drug possession a misdemeanor, those fitting under the umbrella of drug court protection dwindled — as these courts typically only serve felony crimes.

Drug courts are based on a simple premise — carrot or stick. Addicts who opt into the program undergo a rigorous 18-month drug treatment, urine tests, and court dates. And if they pass, their charges are dismissed. But if they fail, they're sentenced to prison.

Proposition 47 turned certain felonies — like drug possession, the most common charge in drug court — into misdemeanors, with the corresponding promise that dollars saved on locking up drug users would be put into treatment.

"These courts need to be saved," says Mark De Wit, a former public defender who worked L.A.'s drug courts before retiring last month.

A point echoed by Judge Anderson: "The effect of it is that people are not getting the treatment that they otherwise could get."

A Solution

De Wit believes expanding eligibility for drug court could be the answer. And – for those who fail, a gentler sentence at county jail instead of prison.

Another idea from Loyola Law Professor Eric Miller, include more serious felonies. 

Miller admits however that there's little political appetite for such a move locally, and it would be complex determining who would respond best to different kinds of treatment. 

Miller adds that one of the shortcomings of the program already is that drug courts don’t engage in a sophisticated enough screening process to weed out people who won't succeed. To this point De Wit adds the big question is whether offenders have the motivation to go into serious drug treatment.

That very quandary has left many who work in this field with complicated feelings. De Wit, for instance, voted for the proposition, but simultaneously criticizes what it has done to drug courts.

Corey Kagan, director of legal affairs for IMPACT, the provider of L.A. County drug court's treatment services, says he agrees with the basic premise of Proposition 47 — that people shouldn't be imprisoned for what's essentially a medical problem. He’s also a drug court graduate.

"I’m mixed," he says. "I believe in decriminalization, but I’m just not happy with the consequences in terms of what it’s saying for people entering recovery."

L.A. County's District Attorney's Office says it's working on a new policy that will address criteria for entering drug court, no details yet.