When California's Substance Abuse and Crime Prevention Act of 2000 takes effect next month, the law will usher thousands of substance abusers into treatment instead of jail.

The new law, often referred to as Proposition 36, requires judges to offer nonviolent drug offenders probation with substance abuse treatment in lieu of incarceration for their first two offenses. The court can choose from a variety of state-licensed treatment programs, and part of the offender's sentence may also require community service, literacy training, family counseling and vocational training.

California voters approved the measure in November's election, earmarking $60 million in start-up funding and $120 million in annual funds to run the program.

While most states have some kind of law that provides treatment options to drug offenders, California is only the second state to pass a comprehensive program by voter referendum. Arizona was the first in 1996 with its Drug Medicalization, Prevention and Control Act.

As yet, there are no concrete findings yet on how well these measures will work, but Arizona's Supreme Court has found that 75 percent of its participants remained drug free in the program's first year, saving the state $2.5 million.

Other states are also working toward a treatment for nonviolent offenders. Last year, New York's chief judge ordered the state's courts to start phasing in a program that would offer nearly all substance-abusing criminals treatment instead of jail time. In Massachusetts, a similar measure narrowly failed to pass in November. In 1999, North Carolina and Oregon also passed laws regarding drug court or conditional probation for certain drug offenders, and Washington state also provided for sentencing alternatives.

"Public opinion is showing that there is a change in attitudes toward treatment for nonviolent drug offenders," explains Bill Zimmerman, PhD, executive director of the Campaign for New Drug Policies, which sponsored the California and Massachusetts referendums. "What happened here in California is a harbinger of what's to come nationwide."

New laws like Proposition 36 may also offer opportunities for psychology practitioners.

"Certainly, any psychologist qualified in this area and licensed by the state can benefit from this additional funding," adds Zimmerman, a psychologist and member of the Substance Abuse and Crime Prevention Act of 2000 Statewide Advisory Group, especially since the California law mandates that judges try a different form of treatment if the first doesn't work. But psychologists may not be the first place offenders are sent for treatment.

"The system doesn't tend to think of psychologists as providers," says Tom Horvath, PhD, past-president of Div. 50 (Addictions) and president of Practical Recovery Services, an addiction treatment center in San Diego. "Hopefully, Proposition 36 will be a chance to change that and show that there are other approaches," such as psychology's perspective on treatment and prevention of relapse, he says.

Further Reading

For more information, visit the California Department of Alcohol and Drug Programs at www.adp.cahwnet.gov/default.html.