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The Honolulu Advertiser

Posted on: Friday, March 1, 2002

Drug rehab proposed as first-time sentence

By Lynda Arakawa
Advertiser Capitol Bureau

Voters would decide whether certain drug offenders should get drug treatment instead of going to prison, under a last-minute proposal unveiled by Senate Judiciary Chairman Brian Kanno yesterday.

The bill, which the Judiciary Committee will vote on tomorrow, would call for a constitutional amendment question asking voters: "Shall non-violent, first-time drug offenders be sentenced to undergo and complete a drug treatment rather than to incarceration?"

Kanno, who last year rejected Gov. Ben Cayetano's proposal requiring courts to send such offenders to treatment programs instead of prison, said the issue resurfaced as a way to save money and address prison crowding problems. Sending nonviolent, first-time drug offenders to prison costs more than giving them treatment, he said.

"This is a primary means to address budget cuts," he said. He also said the state is failing many incarcerated drug offenders who would benefit from treatment.

Such policy change can be accomplished by legislation and doesn't require a constitutional amendment. But Kanno said: "This is a major structural change for our prison system. That major change, I think, should be something that the public should have the opportunity to have a say in."

Drug treatment advocate and American Civil Liberties Union board president Pam Lichty said: "If this is what it takes to move the issue then I would be supportive, but it's kind of an evasive way for the Legislature to deal with it."

She said she believes that voters would approve the amendment, but that this is an example of "politicians trying to pass on what they see as a controversial decision to the public. If they put it on the ballot they don't have to take a position on it."