While Maryland Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R) signed a law to divert nonviolent drug offenders from jail into treatment last week, D.C. Mayor Anthony A. Williams (D) continued to block similar legislation in the District.
In November 2002, 78 percent of D.C. voters approved Measure 62, a "treatment instead of incarceration" initiative that would save taxpayer money, reduce drug addiction and help keep families together. Eighteen months later the city has yet to implement the measure because the mayor is blocking it in court.
Modeled after a similar measure enacted by California voters, Measure 62 is intended to provide substance abuse treatment instead of imprisonment to eligible nonviolent, first- or second-time defendants charged with the illegal possession or use of certain drugs. Treatment would be for one year, with six months of follow-up care that would include job training, family counseling, anger management counseling and drug treatment. Keeping people with substance abuse problems out of jail means that they could continue to work and support their families.
Measure 62 was considered a groundbreaking initiative when D.C. voters approved it. But in the past couple of years, states as diverse as Texas, Kansas and now Maryland have enacted similar legislation. Policymakers are finding that treatment instead of incarceration is a win-win-win issue: Treating drug abuse as a health issue reduces addiction, puts law enforcement resources to better use, and saves lives and money.
A study for the White House's Office of National Drug Control Policy found that treatment is 15 times more cost-effective at reducing drug abuse than law enforcement efforts. Every dollar invested in treatment saves taxpayers $7.46 in social costs. No wonder polls show that more than 70 percent of Americans favor providing drug treatment rather than prison time for people convicted of drug possession or selling small amounts of drugs.
While in five years California is saving $1.5 billion through treatment instead of incarceration, and Texas is saving $115 million, taxpayers in the District have yet to save a penny, because Williams has sued to have their votes thrown out and Measure 62 overturned. A panel of judges heard arguments from both sides earlier this month.
The mayor argues that the initiative improperly requires the city to spend money even though the measure does not appropriate any money. Because Congress generally pays the expense of incarcerating the District's drug offenders, Congress -- not the District -- should pay for Measure 62 too. That is why the measure was written in a way that doesn't require the city to fund it. The hope was that the mayor and the D.C. Council would work with the city's voters to lobby Congress to fund the measure. Instead, the mayor is suing the voters, and the Council is ducking its responsibility.
Measure 62 is backed by local treatment providers, civil rights groups, criminal justice reform groups and 78 percent of voters. If the courts rule against the measure, its supporters will keep trying ballot measures until the District does implement a program to get the city's drug addicts out of jail, into treatment, back to work and reunited with their families.
We still hope the mayor will work with us instead of against us.
-- Bill Piper
is the director of national affairs
for the Drug Policy Alliance.