UCLA data uphold California drug treatment successes

In its sixth review of California’s drug treatment-instead-of-incarceration law (Proposition 36) since it went into effect in July 2001, University of California, Los Angeles, researchers have once again validated the program. Approximately 50,000 people have been referred to drug treatment under Proposition 36 in each of the past few years, of which 71 percent enter treatment. The new UCLA report finds:

The completion rate was 32.2% among offenders who entered treatment in Proposition 36’s fourth year and had a final discharge on record. This is fairly typical of results seen in studies of drug users referred to treatment by criminal justice sources.

Re-offending was consistently lower among Proposition 36 offenders who completed treatment compared to offenders who did not. This effect of participation persisted even after statistically controlling for other client background characteristics.

Arrests for violent crimes fell slightly more in California than they did nationally.

[C]osts for a pre-Proposition 36-era comparison group and for all first-year Proposition 36-eligible offenders found a net savings of $1,977 per offender (N = 61,609) over a 42 month period, yielding a benefit-cost ratio of nearly 2 to 1. In other words, $2 was saved for every $1 invested…. Proposition 36 participants who completed treatment achieved a benefit-cost ratio of approximately 4 to 1 over a 42 month period, indicating that “completers” saved $4 for every $1 allocated.

Due in part to the fiscal environment faced by the State of California, insufficient Proposition 36 funding levels have eroded stakeholders’ ability to treat and monitor Proposition 36 offenders. Moreover, unpredictability in Proposition 36 from fiscal year to fiscal year is undermining stakeholders’ ability to engage in long term planning beyond the current year.

The evidence shows that the program has made a good start, and that greater investment in drug treatment, such as that proposed under Proposition 5 on the November ballot, is likely to yield further returns in cost savings and reduced violent crime. Proposition 5 will build on Proposition 36 by boosting attendance and completion rates and providing more proven resources for treatment. More information on how Proposition 5 tightens up California’s drug treatment programs and addresses critical problems in the prison system is available in Reason Foundation’s policy brief, The Nonviolent Offender Rehabilitation Act: Prison Overcrowding, Parole and Sentencing Reform (Proposition 5).

Skaidra Smith-Heisters is a policy analyst at Reason Foundation, a nonprofit think tank advancing free minds and free markets.