Seated in a Los Angeles courtroom, Jakata Arrant fidgets nervously as a judge reads through her case file. Admittedly there is a lot to read. A former runaway, Arrant, 24, has been arrested three times for drugs, most recently in late 1999 for felony possession of cocaine. She acknowledges she has spent roughly half her life desperately addicted—so much so, she says, that on the day of her last release from a state prison, "I was at my dealer's within an hour."

Today, however, Arrant seems to be regaining control of her life, thanks at least in part to the confidence placed in her by superior court Judge Stephen Marcus. In the fall of 1999 Marcus rendered a decision that only a few years ago would have seemed revolutionary. Instead of sending Arrant back to jail, Marcus put her on probation and ordered that she seek treatment at Impact, a West Pasadena rehab center that has counted among its clients Robert Downey Jr. and James Caan. Despite Impact's celebrity cachet, notes Jim Stillwell, who runs the center, it could never be mistaken for a country club. For 12 months Arrant had to adhere to a rigorous schedule of physical labor and group therapy—and make follow-up appearances before Judge Marcus. "She came to us basically from the streets," says Stillwell, himself a recovering addict. "Now she's an employed, responsible mom raising her kids in a healthy, safe, drug-free environment. This is the kind of miracle that motivates me."

Since Arrant was first jailed for using drugs two years ago, much of the nation has begun viewing such crimes differently. Even the most minor drug offenses could once lead to hard time. But with jails and prisons crowded with repeat offenders who can't shake their habits—and given the enormous cost of building new facilities—more and more experts are insisting that drug abuse can't be beaten behind bars. Treatment, they say, is the better option. "We've realized we have been investing our money badly," says Joseph A. Califano, president of the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University. "There will always be a need for law enforcement, but the real return will come when we spend on treatment and prevention."

Nowhere has that sentiment had a greater impact than California. With drug offenders making up 30 percent of the state's prison population, voters overwhelmingly approved a bold ballot initiative last fall that abolishes incarceration as a punishment for nearly all nonviolent drug users and instead sends them to state-approved treatment centers like Impact. Proposition 36, which becomes law on July 1, clears drug charges from the criminal records of those who graduate from treatment programs and calls for the possibility of jail time only after a third arrest. Supporters of the new law predict that some 36,000 drug users a year will end up in rehab, potentially saving California taxpayers an estimated $200-$250 million in annual prison costs alone, to say nothing of medical, welfare and other costs associated with drug use. But opponents of the proposition, many of whom are in law enforcement, remain unconvinced, pointing to recent studies indicating that as many as half of all addicts who seek treatment relapse.

Arizona, which passed an initiative almost identical to Proposition 36 in 1996, has had mixed results. Adopting a carrot-and-stick approach, judges and probation officers have rewarded those who report for court-ordered treatment with small incentives like free museum tickets, while punishing truants with weekend litter-patrol duty. Though angry prosecutors complain that as many as a quarter of all offenders in Maricopa County, the state's most populous, have simply walked away from rehab without fear of ending up behind bars, thousands of others are receiving help for drug problems for the first time. Says Angel Rogers, 46, clinical director of Desert Winds Counseling in Mesa, Ariz., who sees about 40 such clients a week: "I'm pretty positive about the new law. I was expecting a much more resistant clientele, but our statistics show that 76 percent of them are successfully completing treatment. That's a very high number."

Perhaps no recent case better illustrates the uphill struggle faced by chronic users than that of actor Robert Downey Jr., who was arrested on drug-possession charges at a Palm Springs hotel on Nov. 25, not quite four months after his release from a California state prison where he had spent nearly a year. Police say that Downey, now 36, who has pleaded not guilty, was found with nearly 4 grams of cocaine and 16 tranquilizers in his hotel room. If convicted, he could be sent back to prison for up to 56 months, although prosecutors have indicated a willingness to at least consider sending him back to rehab. While cautiously optimistic that Downey could eventually kick his habit, Stillwell, who briefly treated him in the late '90s, says that motivation will be the deciding factor: "Downey has to want it bad."

Though Stillwell, 54, has some reservations about California's new law, believing that the threat of jail time can sometimes prove an effective motivator, he is an absolute convert to the powers of treatment. "As a recovering addict myself," he says, "I'm completely behind anyone trying to get a foothold in a drug-free way of life through treatment, which can bring great hope and strength."

In fact, since enrolling at Impact as a struggling heroin user 27 years ago, he has turned the treatment center into one of the most respected facilities in the country, with a remarkable record in treating addiction. Of the 400 clients referred by drug courts each year, about 70 percent complete the program and remain arrest-free for life, says Stillwell. "We've had every type of person in here—judges, airline pilots, thieves, arsonists—and we treat them all the same," he says. Stillwell has developed a one-size-fits-all philosophy that teaches addicts to check their egos at the door and learn to depend on each other in order to kick a habit that, if unchecked, will likely lead to jail or an early grave. He has also chosen to staff his eight facilities with former addicts, because they know the ins and outs of fighting addiction. Says Michael Judge, L.A. County's chief public defender: "We've had phenomenal success with drug addicts, and in great measure this is due to the work of treatment providers like Impact."

Stillwell's effectiveness is largely the product of having conquered his own demons. He was born in Hollywood and raised in Sherman Oaks, Calif., by his mother, Elvira, now and his late father, Jack, a World War II flier who won decorations for heroism in Burma but lapsed into alcoholism on his return home. Stillwell's parents divorced when he was in his teens, and Jim and his sister Nancy, now 47, rarely saw their father after that. "He was tough and gruff," says Jim, "yet he had this sweetness to him. Maybe some of that carried over to me."

Stillwell traces his own history of drug use back to sniffing gasoline in the seventh grade. "I grew up at a time when we thought, 'Once an addict, always an addict,' " he says. As if to prove the point, Stillwell, who dropped out of Catholic high school in 10th grade, tried every drug available—marijuana, cocaine, heroin—often stealing and scamming to fuel his habit. After several arrests and stays in county jail, he volunteered in 1967 for Army service in Vietnam in an attempt to clean up his life.

He might just as well have gone back to the street. On Stillwell's first day with his new infantry company outside Saigon, a dazed-looking GI sauntered up to him and said, "Hey, dude, want some acid?" Stillwell knew his plan to get straight was doomed. "I got loaded and stayed loaded pretty much for my year's tour of duty," he says. Back home in California he encountered the same awkward silences and veiled hostility that bedeviled many Vietnam vets he knew—compounded in Stillwell's case by guilt over his father's death from cancer in 1985. Heroin was his solace until, after hitting rock bottom in 1973 and realizing he couldn't kick his habit, he signed up for treatment at Impact, then a fledgling rehab facility founded three years earlier by a pair of recovering addicts.

Stillwell's first stay at Impact, then located in West L.A., was a disaster. He resented the strict regulations detailing how clients should hang up their clothes and balked when demerits were given out for dust found under the beds. Twice, Stillwell dropped out of the program and got back into drugs. Finally, on his third try, he was sent with a group of other recovering addicts on a weekend camping trip to Big Bear, three hours east of L.A. With no place to score heroin, Stillwell had to go cold turkey. "I've never been so sick in my life," he says. "I was just a curled-up ball on the floor, head in the sink, rocking back and forth. Every joint ached and howled."

Nobody in the group took pity, but neither did they turn their backs on him. "All the guys were there for me, all 20 of them," he says. "They held me. They laughed. They said, 'Come on, punk, get up.' And I was just dying. But they never gave up on me." Back at Impact, Stillwell found added strength in the 12 steps of Narcotics Anonymous. And it didn't hurt that he fell in love. Debi Van Dyck, now 53 and Impact's human resources coordinator, was then a single mother who had started off with diet pills in her 20s, quickly losing control of her life. One night in the early '70s she rear-ended a car and was arrested with 1,000 barbiturates in her possession. After she had logged a half-dozen stays at the L.A. County women's prison while her parents took care of her two children, she enrolled herself in Impact and stayed for 17 months. "Jim had gotten there a week or so before me," she recalls. "At Impact everyone has a job, and if you're new, they start you with washing the pots and pans. That's where we met."

Jim and Debi married two years later, after reclaiming Debi's two daughters, Angela, now 34, who works as an assistant to her mother, and Marci, 30, a homemaker. Together the couple had a third child, Jessica, 22, now a senior at Azusa Pacific University in Azusa, Calif., and raised them all as one family. They consider the kids their greatest source of strength. "We have all the issues that every family has," admits Debi, who goes to a Narcotics Anonymous meeting once a week. "My middle child, Marci, became bulimic. I had no idea what that was, but we worked it out. My oldest daughter has two kids, and when she got a divorce she came here to live. I was happy to help." Jim's mother, who has fibromyalgia, a chronic pain syndrome, moved into the guesthouse of Stillwell's six-bedroom Spanish-style home in Alta Loma in 1993. "You know," says Debi with a smile, "Jim and I used to be the losers. Now we take care of everyone."

Driven by his mission, Jim Stillwell says he has never seriously considered working anywhere but Impact, where he was named director in 1980. Perhaps it's because he needs Impact as much as it needs him. "We addicts have one common denominator," he says. "If we continue to use drugs, we all die. When you understand that, you finally get what we do here."

Patrick Rogers
Ron Arias and Maureen Harrington in Los Angeles

  • Contributors:
  • Ron Arias,
  • Maureen Harrington.