California's Budget Crisis May Help Drug Addicts Get Higher
Helena first tried meth when she was just fifteen years old. Today, she lives the life of a full-blown addict who is living couch-to-couch in Santa Rosa-- and is in and out of prison due to her constant use of illegal substances.
By her own account, Helena’s encounters with the law include “three possession charges, three paraphernalia charges, two DUI’s, suspicion of drug trafficking for being caught with a pound of marijuana." However, Helena, who preferred not to have her last name revealed for privacy reasons, said confidenly, "I currently do not have any strikes at the moment."
The state’s current budget crisis has undermined the Three Strikes Law for some offenders like Helena, who find judges willing to take strikes off their records, due to a lack in funding for jails, prisons and state-funded rehabilitation centers.
It costs more than $47,000 to keep an inmate in jail every year, making California state judges more reluctant to send criminals behind bars; therefore, drug offenders are sent back on the street without the benefit of rehabilitation or jail.
Helena, just 32, has the face of someone much older. With boils on her face, a pale skin tone and an emaciated frame, she says she is an addict.
Her parents decided to completely cut her off. She remains homeless, living in day-to-day uncertainty over where she will be able to sleep.
After being released from jail, Helena slept at other addicts’ homes, or with male acquaintances who offered her both meth and a roof over her head for the night in exchange for sexual favors.
“I pled guilty to my second strike and had a deal made with the judge to stay in jail for a longer amount of time to eliminate more serious charges,” Helena said.
A judge who offers an offender a short time in jail instead of handing out a strike, which could include a prison sentence, is in effect saving the state money in the short-term.
However, this allows the addict to continue their addiction, and to be back on the street sooner without any rehabilitation.
This typical transaction between the judge and the addict will result in offenders like Helena almost never reaching three strikes, since she is able to serve a short time in jail in order to get strikes taken off her record.
Cases like Helena’s are becoming more typical as the budget crisis continues. It is less costly for the government to have a criminal spend one month in jail to take away a current pending strike than putting unrevoked strikes on the offender’s record, which will ultimately land the offender in jail for 25 or more years.
Sgt. Michael Nielsen with the Santa Rosa Police Department believes sending an addict back into the throws of addiction, an extremely dangerous lifestyle, is harder than putting them behind bars. “Jail for an addict means having a place to sleep for the night… it’s a nice break from the daily struggle of being an addict,” Nielsen said.
According to Nielsen, the number of drug users being arrested in California this year alone is uncountable and easily in “the thousands.” The state is financially in over its head; prisons are overflowing with more criminals than it can afford to lock up.
“I think we’ve been misguided by populist politicians that want votes by being tough on offenders,” Patrick Grattan, a Santa Rosa trial attorney said. “It’s enormously expensive to keep charging drug users and put them in jail… there should be treatment options.”
Unfortunately for addicts like Helena, the option to go to in-house treatment is not available since a majority of programs are state-funded. Private in-house treatment facilities can cost up to $50,000 per month, an option for only the wealthiest offenders.
“The courts are reducing strikes more because they can’t afford it… there just aren’t enough funds for treatment programs like there should be,” Grattan said. “Judges are aware of the budget crisis, and they know that the jails can’t accommodate a lot of people.”
Helena has a pending case; if she violates her current probation by being caught with any substance, including alcohol, she will land herself back in jail for one year.
“I was remanded, but then talked the judge out of it… I cleaned out two possession charges,” Helena said.
The state has become more lenient in taking off strikes in exchange for guilty pleads and jail time like Helena’s case, but the fact that she can end up back behind bars in the future does not make her daily life any easier.
“I worry that at any moment all my freedom could be taken away… anytime I see a police officer I freak out,” Helena said. “Jail is horrible, there’s nothing to do, 24-hour lockdown, and no time outside or sunshine.”
Addicts like Helena have a hard time spending time behind bars because they are forced to go through withdrawals without any medical treatment. “The withdrawals your body goes through is so intense and painful, I couldn’t stand it,” Helena said.
“The solution for the problem is for the state of California to realize that rehabilitation is less costly in the long run than jail time,” Grattan said.
Reach reporter Katherine Harwood here.