TREATMENT PROPOSAL FOR DRUG OFFENDERS SPARKS DEBATE
A proposal that would make treatment instead of criminal sanctions for
first- and second-time drug offenders a constitutional right is getting strong opposition from law enforcement.
The California-based Campaign for New Drug Policies, known locally as the
Florida Campaign for New Drug Policies, filed a petition last year to get a
proposed constitutional amendment on November's ballot that, if passed, would allow some drug defendants the option of avoiding court.
The basic idea of the amendment would be that a first-or second-time offender charged or convicted of possessing or purchasing drugs could
choose to be assessed and then undergo up to 18 months of therapy to help
kick the drug abuse problem. When the program is completed or the 18 months
is over, there would be no prosecution or sentencing.
People charged with violent crimes or those who have been convicted or
imprisoned for violent crimes in the past five years wouldn't be eligible
for the treatment option.
Already, the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, Florida Prosecuting
Attorneys Association and Florida Alcohol and Drug Abuse Association have
issued written oppositions to the proposal.
"In essence, it's an attempt to legalize drugs," said State Attorney Joe
D'Alessandro, chief prosecutor for the 20th Judicial Circuit.
Though D'Alessandro said he thought treatment for drug users is the ultimate answer for those with drug problems, he said the proposed
constitutional amendment isn't.
He's not alone.
Lee County Sheriff Rod Shoap said it should be up to a judge -- not a
defendant -- to determine if a person should get treatment instead of a sentence in criminal court.
A judge has access to presentencing investigations for defendants, which
can give a more detailed glance into a defendant's background. The presentencing investigation is an important tool, Shoap said, in helping to
determine how well treatment might work for each person.
"Once he has the (presentencing investigations), the judge can decide,"
Shoap also said treatment is essential in fighting drugs. He said that's
why his agency has expanded its Drug Abuse Resistance Education, commonly
known as DARE, from fifth grade to include seventh-grade students as well.
He's also in the process of starting a mentoring program in the schools
that would help focus on drug problems, he said.
"There's this other whole side to fighting drugs other than arrest," Shoap
Law enforcement officials said prison isn't a common sanction for first-time drug offenders anyway.
In an opposition paper from the FDLE, the agency cites statistics from the
Department of Corrections that, of the 1,555 inmates in prison for drug possession on July 31, none were first-time offenders.
The report also states the initiative could dilute the effectiveness of
drug courts started throughout the state, including ones in Lee and Collier
counties, by taking money away from drug courts and using them for the other treatment.
While the people behind the proposed amendment said they aren't against
drug courts, they argue that option isn't enough.
"Our only criticism is it's a small system that hasn't grown to meet enough
people," said Dave Fratello with the Campaign for New Drug Policies.
Fratello said similar measures to the proposed amendment have begun in
California and Arizona, though not identical to the proposition in Florida.
Fratello said the effort to make treatment a constitutional right instead
of a statutory law started because politicians didn't want to take a chance
on such a concept.
"I view this as a symptom of a failed political system when it comes to
drugs," he said.
It would be up to the Legislature to implement the amendment with detailed
statutes and it would also be mostly up to the state to fund the treatment,
though Fratello said defendants would pay for some of the bill if they could afford it.
When Miami attorney Sydney Smith started practicing law a decade ago, he
was a public defender handling a lot of juvenile cases. Now he's in private
practice and attempting to keep defendants off Death Row.
Treatment for drug offenders is a passion of Smith's, who said Florida
isn't doing enough to stop those same juveniles he was seeing years ago from getting deeper into the criminal system.
"They're the same people walking down this horrible path to the electric
chair in some cases," Smith said.
He said the initial cost to the state for the proposal would be worth it,
considering the money Florida would later save in its number of prison beds.
Smith said it's virtually undisputed that drug programs work, but said
treatment is saved for the well-connected or the wealthy more often than
for those with money problems.
"If it's a statistic, it's very easy to forget these are human beings," he
Fratello said he would need about 450,000 signatures and be able to survive
a review by the Florida Supreme Court to get on the ballot in November.
Author: Mary Kelli Bridges, Naples Daily News, 03-04-02