California’s landmark treatment-instead-of-incarceration program – Proposition 36 – was written and sponsored by DPA, and approved by 61 percent of California voters in 2000. Under this law, most people convicted for the first or second time of a nonviolent, low-level drug possession offense have the right to choose probation and community-based drug treatment instead of jail or prison.
In passing Prop. 36, voters were responding to skyrocketing incarceration rates and associated high costs. California had embarked on the largest expansion of a state prison system in United States history during the 1980s, increasing the number of incarcerated drug offenders from 2,000 in 1980 to almost 45,000 in 1999—a 25-fold increase in just 20 years.
When funded at $120 million, about 36,000 people were entering community-based treatment under Prop. 36 each year, half of whom had never received treatment before. In the 12 years prior to Prop. 36, the number of people in state prison for drug possession quadrupled, peaking at 20,116 in June 2000. That number dropped by one-third shortly after Prop. 36 took effect, and remained lower by 11,000 (55 percent) as of June 2010.
In its first seven years, Prop. 36 graduated 84,000 participants, saved the state nearly $2 billion, expanded treatment capacity by 132 percent and reduced the number of drug offenders in prison. Despite Prop. 36’s demonstrated cost savings and public safety record, funding decisions ten years later confirm that treatment in California remains secondary to punishment. Over a four-year period, California entirely eliminated treatment funding for Prop. 36 – from a high of $145 million in 2007-08 to nothing in 2010-11.