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The Shifting Drug War

The pendulum is swinging back from stiff mandatory sentences for drug offenses.

If drug abuse were seen as a medical problem instead of a criminal enterprise, Americans would be both safer and healthier, insists Donner. She cites studies such as one done recently by the RAND Corporation, which estimated that it would cost $21 billion to provide treatment to all of those addicted to a substance, but that doing so would save $150 billion in social costs over the next fifteen years.

While Donner is convinced that public opinion has shifted toward the reformers' agenda, she says that Colorado lawmakers may be the last to know it.

"There's a significant disconnect between legislators and the public on the issue of drug policy," says Donner. "The public wants a more balanced approach, with more resources for treatment and prevention."

Christie Donner believes the public is tired of jailing drug addicts.
Anthony Camera
Christie Donner believes the public is tired of jailing drug addicts.
State senator Ken Gordon hopes to ease Colorado's drug penalties with new legislation.
State senator Ken Gordon hopes to ease Colorado's drug penalties with new legislation.

DA Ritter also believes the public is losing patience with the war on drugs, but he fears the backlash against current policies is leading to a search for simple solutions that won't work any better than mandatory sentencing.

"Proposition 36 in California was a response to a public that was frustrated with the criminal justice system," says Ritter. "The people in California were demanding that the justice system try something different. As prosecutors, we don't want to get into a situation where we have a Proposition 36 in Colorado."

Ritter fears a similar initiative here would take away important law-enforcement tools, such as the ability to make an arrest for simple possession. He thinks the best solution for drug addicts is a combination of treatment and strict penalties to make sure people stay clean.

"There are people who view the drug problem as something we can incarcerate our way out of, and that's not true," says Ritter. "There are others who think this is just a medical problem; I don't think that's true, either. Studies show the best results come from coerced treatment."

Denver's Drug Court is cited by Ritter as an alternative to the 'lock 'em up and throw away the key' approach that has been in favor since the 1980s. In Denver, most drug offenders who agree to plead guilty wind up in Drug Court, where they're offered treatment in lieu of jail time. Besides counseling for drug abuse, they also receive job-placement and other services. Last year, 2,300 cases were heard in Denver's Drug Court.

"We supervise people much more closely [in Drug Court] than under probation," says Ritter. "Under probation, they have lots of opportunities to fail. We're trying to get them clean and sober."

Statistics show that Denver has reduced the recidivism rate slightly through the Drug Court program. Critics of the court -- including Donner -- say the program is almost doomed to failure because it's trying to play good cop/bad cop and doing neither well. She insists that an effective treatment program can't be run out of a courthouse, where people go to be punished. Instead of helping people to get off drugs, Donner says, the Drug Court's emphasis is on moving as many cases as possible through the system.

"When you have dockets loaded with low-income drug offenders, you have to find a way of processing more and more people through the court," says Donner. "More people go through the system, but treatment funding has not expanded. Treatment is the ugly bastard child of Drug Court. People are not getting adequate treatment there."

Denver District Court Judge Morris B. Hoffman, in an article published last year in the North Carolina Law Review, criticized the Drug Court philosophy.

"By simultaneously treating drug use as a crime and as a disease, without coming to grips with the inherent contradictions of those two approaches, drug courts are not satisfying either the legitimate and compassionate interests of the treatment community, or the legitimate and rational interests of the law enforcement community. They are instead simply enabling our continued national schizophrenia about drugs," Hoffman wrote.

For the past two decades, most politicians have found that voters reward lawmakers who are perceived as "tough on crime." That makes many legislators skittish about reducing penalties, even if they know current policies aren't working.

"The legislature is more conservative than the people are on this," says Gordon. "There's still a fear of being called 'soft on crime.'"

Donner sees Gordon's bill as a first step that's far short of what her coalition hopes for. She notes that the proposed law would apply only to people who possess less than a gram of a controlled substance, a minority of the people convicted of possession every year. (In Denver, an estimated 30 percent of drug cases involve less than a gram of drugs.)

"I think it will have some impact; the question is to what extent," she says.

For now, Donner will lobby on behalf of Gordon's bill. But she makes it clear that her patience is wearing thin, and she believes the public is ready for new tactics in a war that never seems to end. She has no doubt that a silent majority of Coloradans feel the same way.

"This isn't the lunatic fringe; we just got funding from the Catholic Church," says Donner. "The public doesn't feel it's effective to put low-level users who are addicts in prison, but we still don't see a commitment of new dollars to treatment. We're still not getting at the core of dealing with drug abuse as a health problem. People have to be arrested before we respond."

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