When state lawmakers decided to give responsibility for thousands of criminal offenders to counties, they pointed to drug court as an example of a proven program for handling them.
Drug court is an alternative sentencing program that offers treatment – and the threat of incarceration. It has been found to be more effective at rehabilitating certain offenders than punishment alone.
While many counties included drug courts in their plans for handling new offenders from the state, Sacramento County did not.
A committee of county leaders was divided on how much emphasis to place on social services but ended up approving a plan that spends most of the $13.1 million in state funding on incarceration.
Don Meyer, the head of county probation and the panel that approved the funding plan, was on the losing end of an effort to get more money for rehabilitation. He said he expects the county will consider more funding for drug treatment as it gets more money from the state for handling offenders under the new law.
But Meyer cautioned that not all the offenders coming from the state will be eligible for drug court, which excludes people with violent offenses in the past 10 years. The new offenders from the state can't have a violent crime as their most recent offense but might have had one previously.
Santa Barbara, Madera and Shasta counties are among the jurisdictions that included drug court in their plans for handling offenders under the policy shift.
San Joaquin County, for instance, based its parolee program on drug court. The county's plan says it's essential for parolees to have access to services if they're to successfully rejoin the community.
"Drug courts are successful because the offenders get constant enforcement and the constant accountability," said Patti Mazzilli, San Joaquin County's chief probation officer.
The county operates six different types of drug courts and is spending more than $500,000 of its $7 million in state funding on drug court for the new state offenders.
In Sacramento County, drug court officials say the program, started 17 years ago, can help many offenders. "Offenders have an opportunity to improve their lives rather than stay in the revolving door of drug use, arrest and incarceration," said Burke Adrian, the drug court manager.
Teri Lewis said she's abused drugs since she was a teenager and has unsuccessfully gone though other treatment programs. Facing a drug charge in April, a judge gave her the option of drug court.
She saw a strong incentive to stay straight.
"I've stayed here because I have two years of prison hanging over my head," said Lewis. "This is my last chance."
Participants can complete the program in 10 months and have charges dropped. They must attend 20 hours of outpatient treatment each week and submit to random drug tests.
Superior Court Judge Gary Ransom monitors participation in treatment and the results of drug tests in determining whether to keep offenders in the program.
"Punishment alone won't work," he said.
Rob Wade credits drug court with turning his life around. With one lapse, Wade said he's remained sober and started a small painting business, which has four recovering addicts on staff.
Statistics show that most drug court participants have failed to get sober through other treatment programs. That includes Wade. He continued to abuse methamphetamine and other drugs while racking up a significant criminal record. Driving high one day, for example, Wade hit an elderly man, who was severely injured.
Wade credits the commitment and communication skills of the drug court staff with helping him. "I'd probably be in the same rut if not for drug court," he said.
Like Wade, many of the offenders who became county responsibility under the policy shift will have criminal records tied to drugs, Ransom said.
A lot of them are committing drug crimes – possession and dealing – or committing crimes to support drug habits, he said.
In October, more than a third of the 80 offenders sentenced under the new sentencing law in Sacramento Superior Court had been convicted of drug charges, records show.
From Oct. 1 to Oct. 19, 42 percent of the 73 parolees released to county custody had served state prison sentences for drug convictions, according to county probation.
Drug court can make a difference for those people, Ransom said.
In 2007, NPC Research completed a study on drug court that found 17 percent of drug court graduates were re-arrested within two years, compared with 67 percent of a comparison group.
Repeated cuts by the state and the county have limited drug court's effectiveness since the study was done, drug-court manager Adrian said. From 2007 through last year, the court lost about two-thirds of its funding, down to $690,000.
This year, the program received $725,000 from the state's Community Corrections Performance Incentive Act of 2009. But the court's budget is still well below earlier years.