An alternative to incarceration 

Drug treatment court helps drug offenders kick the habit

Drug treatment court helps drug offenders kick the habit
The small courtroom on the third floor of the City-County Building fills quickly with people of all ages, races and walks of life - in short, a fairly representative sample of the type of people who use drugs in America. They are white, African-American, Hispanic and Asian, young, middle-aged and old. Some are well-dressed while others are obviously down on their luck, but these people share one experience in common: They have all been arrested for committing a non-violent felony drug offense, and have been given the option to seek treatment for their addiction rather than serve time because of it.
Judge Z. Mae Jimison: "When people walk towards recovery, they ... stop committing crimes, and that benefits the business community and the community at large."
Some sit quietly and wait for this afternoon"s session of the Marion County Drug Treatment Diversion Program to start, while others greet each other warmly and make conversation, laughing, asking after each others" families. One man has brought along his baby daughter, secured snugly across his chest in a baby carrier. The atmosphere is lively and relaxed, and seems little like a courtroom. People approach their case managers and public defender Kathy Downs for a quick word or two, and sometimes receive a hug or a pat on the back as well. Judge Z. Mae Jimison, the first African-American woman to preside over a Superior Court in Indiana, is soft-spoken, yet stern, and has an almost grandmotherly presence. When she enters the room, everyone settles down immediately and stands at attention when the court is called to order. Those who have met the program"s rigorous requirements this week are called up to the judge"s bench one by one. Each of these 22 people receives applause from their fellow participants, and a word of encouragement from Jimison. The phrases "I"m very proud of you" and "Keep up the good work" cross her lips often. "I look forward to the day when I can say, "You can all come on down,"" the judge muses. There are three promotions this week - two white women, and one Hispanic young man - who will all move forward to the program"s third and final phase. The judge promises to bake each one of them a pound cake, as she does for all participants who make it to a new phase of the program. If they graduate from the program, a process that typically takes 12 to 18 months from start to finish, all charges against them will be dismissed. Those who have not done so well - who have failed their weekly drug test, or have not fulfilled one or more of the program"s other stipulations, such as participating in group therapy sessions, keeping a steady job, showing up on time for all court appointments and contributing to the cost of their treatment - are then called up to the bench for admonition. Some receive sanctions, such as the reduction of privileges or a night or two in jail. Participants who receive too many sanctions or commit a new offense risk being terminated from the program to face their drug charges in a traditional criminal court. "We do no one a service by sending addicts to prison" It has been nearly four years since Jimison, working in partnership with the Public Defender Agency and Prosecutor"s Office, created this program as an alternative to incarcerating the large numbers of non-violent drug offenders who had overwhelmed the criminal justice system for years with high rates of recidivism, and drug-related non-violent crimes - ranging from theft to forgery to prostitution - to support their habits. Since the first drug treatment court was established in Miami, Fla., in 1989, 14 Indiana counties have created similar programs. Nationwide, there were nearly 700 such courts in operation and more than 400 more in the planning stages as of 2000, according to the Department of Justice"s Office of Justice Programs. Drug treatment courts have been called one of the major American judicial reforms of the latter 20th century, and supporters say that the approach"s popularity reflects a broadening consensus that America"s war on drugs is in need of radical revision. "Drugs are more available in the penitentiary than they are on the street," Jimison says. "So if you take someone, especially a first offender, and send that person to prison addicted, and they"re able to get all the drugs they want while they"re there, they return to us still addicted. We"ve also just exposed them to the state"s best criminal minds, so they have a chance to hone their talents. We do no one a service by sending addicts to prison." Although Jimison initially disagreed with Prosecutor Scott Newman and Public Defender David Cook about whether the program should be mandatory and probation-oriented or voluntary (she advocated for the latter), they reached consensus on the program"s current format during a series of visits to existing programs around the country. After receiving federal grant money from the Department of Justice, the Marion County Drug Treatment Diversion Program began accepting participants in October of 1998. Potential candidates for the program are carefully screened and clinically evaluated before they can begin treatment, and must have: ï No history of violent crime ï No prior arrests or convictions related to drug dealing or criminal recklessness ï No history of firearm violence ï No open warrants ï No pending criminal charges in another jurisdiction Participants must agree to remain drug-, alcohol- and crime-free for the duration of their treatment, which is divided into three phases. In Phase I, lasting eight weeks, participants undergo clinical assessment, and a detox program if necessary, and work with case managers to stabilize their often precarious lives; participants must submit to urine tests three times a week, and appear before Jimison once a week. Phase II lasts three months and is focused on therapy, with participants attending 12-step meetings such as Narcotics Anonymous twice a week, taking urine tests twice a week and appearing in court twice a month. During this time, case managers assist participants in finding employment or educational opportunities, and identifying other mental or medical health needs. Phase III lasts at least seven months, and requires weekly 12-step sessions and drug tests and monthly court appearances. So far, the program has over 100 graduates, with a recidivism rate of less than 20 percent, as compared to a re-arrest rate of more than 50 percent within two to three years for drug offenders who do not receive treatment, according to Department of Justice statistics. Only about half of those who begin the program make it through to graduation, but for those who do, like Bruce Long, it"s well worth the effort. "Things began to click" Bruce Long, now sober for more than three years, and president of the Drug Treatment Diversion Program"s alumni association, is an outspoken and eloquent supporter of drug treatment courts. But when he entered the program after being arrested on charges of possessing drug paraphernalia, the longtime addict had only one reason for participating: He wanted the charges against him dismissed. "The first thing that comes through peoples" minds is, "How do I beat this case?"" Long says. "They"re not even thinking about being clean for life or trying to better themselves." Long, a successfully self-employed bathroom and kitchen contractor, had been using cocaine for about nine months. During this period, his life began to spiral sharply downward, and by the time of his arrest he had lost $300,000, and his wife Niki had filed for divorce. When Long signed up for the Drug Treatment Diversion Program, he found the strict requirements irritating at first, but he now credits its tough approach with helping him to get clean. "The best thing about the drug treatment program," Long observes, "is forcing the participants to stay clean. If we could have done it on our own, we would have." About six months into the program, Long says, "Things began to click." Like many participants, he found strength in the program"s support network, comprised of case managers, attorneys, treatment providers, the other participants and Judge Jimison. "Stopping using drugs can sometimes be the easiest part. It"s working out all the other stuff you made a mess of that makes it hard," he recalls. Slowly, Long began to get the rest of his life back on track. He started working in a solid surface fabrication shop, where he is now a manager, and devoted himself to his relationship with Niki and their children: a daughter now 3 and a half, and a 10-month-old son. Had he not entered the program, Long says, "I may have ended up somewhere different. Because this was my first offense, I probably could have beat it, or done community service. I would have gotten out and been right back where I was. There"s no doubt about it. Freebasing cocaine was probably my favorite thing in the world to do." Long felt a sense of accomplishment when he graduated from the program, but he cautions, "You never graduate from recovery - I was just successful in the treatment program. In my opinion, I will always be an addict." Long now mentors other addicts through the early stages of their recovery, and helps other graduates of the program stay connected through alumni events. "A win-win situation" According to the attorneys and treatment providers associated with the Drug Treatment Diversion Program, the approach works because it deals with drug abuse and drug-related crime as a public health issue, attacking the epidemic on the demand side. Says Kathy Downs, "As a public defender, I"ve always viewed drug use as a public health issue, rather than a criminal justice issue. But I haven"t seen a really effective treatment program before this." Deputy Prosecutor G. Frederick White believes that programs like this one represent the new wave of thinking about how to prosecute non-violent drug crime. "It"s a great program for everyone," he says. "When drug treatment court works, you have a person with a drug problem who, instead of expending the cost of locking them up, you get rid of their habit and get a productive member of society back." Even Prosecutor Scott Newman, notorious for his stern stance on drug offenders, has called the program "a win-win situation" because treatment significantly reduces the chance that a drug offender will re-enter the criminal justice system. An ever-growing body of public health research shows that the treatment approach to drug crime is not only more humane - it"s also a much better use of taxpayer dollars. A 1998 study by Columbia University"s National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse found that municipalities save as much as $10 for every $1 spent on drug treatment courts, from reduced demand for jail and prison cells, lower criminal justice system costs and a reduction in crimes committed by drug addicts. Downs cites additional public health costs saved by the babies that have been born drug-free to her clients as a result of their participation in the program - four in just the past two months - that, had they been born drug addicted, would each have cost an average of $250,000 to care for in their first year of life alone. Although Jimison"s passion for the drug treatment court approach is fueled by her own moral and spiritual convictions, she"s prepared to argue the cost/benefit analysis as well: "There is the basic issue of trying to help people who have fallen," she says. "But if people don"t want to go the altruistic path, I"m prepared to give them the statistics that say it"s a lot cheaper to treat addicts than to keep them in prison." The National Association of Drug Court Professionals estimates that it costs between $20,000 and $50,000 per person per year to incarcerate a drug offender, compared to $2,500 for a drug offender to participate in a drug treatment court program. Failure to provide substance abuse treatment to drug addicts costs American taxpayers $276 billion a year, according to estimates by the National Institutes of Health. The American Public Health Association estimates that only 37 percent of the 5.3 million addicts severely in need of treatment actually receive it. "Treatment has been convincingly demonstrated to be more effective than law enforcement and incarceration in reducing the demand for illicit drugs," a recent APHA study concluded. Sheila Kennedy, assistant professor of law and public policy at Indiana University"s School of Public Affairs, believes that the growing popularity of drug treatment courts hints at a larger shift in the prevailing thinking about the war on drugs. "What the establishment of those courts indicates is a growing recognition of the failure of a punitive system of drug prohibition. We spend $40 billion a year on the drug war, and most studies indicate that the drug interdiction effort has had absolutely no effect on abuse of drugs, and a great deal of deleterious effect on society in general," Kennedy says. "The recognition that what we have been doing does not work has led to the establishment of these alternative courts. What we have here is not a criminal justice issue at all, but a medical issue, a public health issue." "We can"t afford to incarcerate everybody who has a drug problem" When President Richard Nixon declared war on drugs in 1971, he earmarked $105 million of the war"s $150 million budget for treatment and prevention initiatives, creating a nationwide network of drug treatment facilities. President Reagan swiftly dismantled Nixon"s programs soon after taking office, cutting the drug treatment budget in favor of the "Just Say No" campaign, backed with a supply-side approach to the problem emphasizing tougher sentencing for offenders and stepped-up efforts to stop drugs from entering the U.S. This shift in policy has produced a number of outcomes in the past two decades: ï retail prices for cocaine and heroin are now about half of their 1981 levels ï a drug offender is arrested every 20 seconds, for a total of more than a million arrests so far this year ï prison spending is the fastest-growing category in state budgets ï the United States now has the highest prison population in the world, more than a third of which is comprised of drug offenders ï although African-Americans represent only 13 percent of drug users, they make up 74 percent of inmates serving time for drug offenses ï one in three African-American men ages 20-29 is currently incarcerated, or on probation or parole, largely due to racial disparities in the enforcement of narcotics laws The bulk of Marion County"s drug offenders have their cases heard in Court 20, which offers a firsthand view of these stark statistics in the making. The dank, often sweltering courtroom in the basement of the City-County Building is standing-room only some days, as offenders" families, largely African-American, wait for their husbands, sons, fathers, nephews or boyfriends to shuffle into the courtroom in chains. The teams of mostly white attorneys can zip through as many as 30 cases in an afternoon. Public Defender Steve Laudig has worked in Court 20 for nearly two decades, and his experiences have convinced him that the war on drugs is a failure, unfairly targeting minorities and the poor, and decimating Indianapolis" inner-city communities. The current system, Laudig says, is "expensive, cruel and ineffective. It"s a war on people who have a dependency. It"s starting to look like Vietnam in that it"s mostly people of color who are catching the brunt. And it"s going just about as well as that war." Laudig estimates that perhaps one in 20 of his clients is a true menace to society. "It"s safer for everyone that those people be taken out of circulation, but we can"t afford to incarcerate everybody who has a drug problem." Laudig, too, views drug crime as a public health issue, and says that many of his clients are using drugs to self-medicate an undiagnosed mental health problem, or escape from the reality of their lives. He would like to see a treatment-based approach to drug crime like that of the Drug Treatment Diversion Program more widely applied, but says local authorities are not willing to dedicate the necessary financial resources. "If they spent half the money on treatment they spend now on incarcerating drug offenders, we would get a fair test of whether or not drug treatment courts would be an efficient solution to the problem of non-violent drug offenders," Laudig says. "It would be nice to find out if alternative sentencing works, but since not enough legislators and elected prosecutors care to create a system that treats people with dignity, care and respect, we don"t know." Laudig predicts "the situation will only change when we have a prosecutor who is more concerned with outcomes than with making headlines." Court 20 made headlines this past August when convicted drug dealer Bryan Brown - one of the nearly 3,000 inmates released by Court 20 Judge William Young over the past year to ease jail overcrowding - was charged with murder just two months after he was freed. Kennedy and other critics of Young"s release policy argue that the overcrowded conditions in the Marion County Jail are caused partly by the large number of non-violent drug offenders who remain in jail, often due to inability of low-income arrestees to make bail. Plans for a new $12 million lockup facility are under consideration, but building more jail cells has so far done little to address the underlying vicious cycle of drug abuse, crime, incarceration and recidivism. According to data from the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy, 64 percent of men and 69 percent of women arrested in Marion County in 1999 tested positive for illegal drug use at the time of their arrest. Judge Jimison says this statistic is evidence that the criminal justice system cannot continue to ignore the need to treat and rehabilitate drug offenders. "When people walk towards recovery, they walk away from recidivism," she observes. "They stop committing crimes, and that benefits the business community and the community at large." At its present capacity of 150 participants, Jimison"s Drug Treatment Diversion Program can accommodate less than 2 percent of the more than 7,000 people arrested on drug charges by the Indianapolis Police Department in 2001, between 70 and 80 percent of whom test positive for illegal drug use, according to the Arrestee Drug Abuse Monitoring Program. Everyone associated with the drug treatment program agrees that it needs to be much larger to reach its true potential to rehabilitate drug offenders and reduce crime. Case manager Melissa Hardman estimates that there is usually a backlog of about 50 eligible offenders waiting to enter the program. Hardman, Downs, White and Jimison all say that the program"s capacity needs to double or triple in size. But before the program can grow, Indianapolis needs to establish a wider array of affordable treatment providers. Currently, the only residential detox program affordable to the program"s lower income clients is operated by the Salvation Army, and it has at least a two to three week waiting list for beds. Although private insurance or Medicaid cover the cost of treatment for some clients, Hardman says it"s not uncommon for participants without insurance to carry a $400-$600 balance for treatment costs by the time they finish the program. According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, Indiana ranks 16th worst in the nation when it comes to providing adequate drug treatment resources. The Drug Treatment Diversion Program currently operates on a modest budget of $278,056, cobbled together mainly from state and local grants, and must pay for its own public defender and part-time prosecutor. The program lacks a separate courtroom, and program staff often pay for extra supplies and incentives for participants out of their own pockets. By contrast, Jimison notes, Kansas City"s drug treatment court has a budget of $17 million a year, and offers free treatment to any drug offender who needs it. "We don"t have nearly the money we need," Jimison laments. "If we did, we"d have many more participants in the program." As a former City-County Council member, Jimison knows how difficult it is to secure funding for new initiatives, but she concludes, "I think it"s an effort worth making." Bruce Long agrees. He urges compassion, and alternatives to incarceration, for addicts who, like him, find themselves caught up in the criminal justice system. "These people are human beings. They"re not bad people, they"re just sick, and trying to get better." For more information about the Marion County Drug Treatment Diversion Program, call (317) 327-4959.
Sources & resources
Debt to Society This in-depth special report from Mother Jones examines how the U.S. became the world"s leading jailer, including statistics on the prison population in each state, and analysis of related social justice and criminal justice issues, including the war on drugs. 360 Degrees A groundbreaking multimedia project documenting perspectives on the criminal justice system from both sides of the bars. Includes the public radio series The Prison Diaries, an interactive history of incarceration, and resources for activists. The Sentencing Project A non-partisan criminal justice policy group researching and promoting alternatives to incarceration. Human Rights Watch This international watchdog group studies and reports on human rights violations around the world. HRW"s 2000 report "Punishment and Prejudice: Racial Disparities in the War on Drugs" is available for downloading. National Criminal Justice Reference Service An extensive, comprehensive collection of research and reports on drug treatment courts across the nation, compiled by the Department of Justice. Indiana Judicial Center Information about drug courts around Indiana, from the state agency responsible for their certification.

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