Arizona Sending Drug Offenders To Treatment, Not Jail

 
Hannah Merrill, 19, of Tucson, Ariz. started using speed when she was 15 years old. She committed petty crimes to support her habit. In late 1997, Merrill was arrested for check fraud and given a choice of spending three years in jail or receiving treatment for her drug habit. She chose treatment and today is off drugs and works full-time as a waitress to pay for college where she is working towards a degree in nursing.

"I don't see myself using drugs again," Merrill said after spending 18 months in treatment. She said that had she been put in jail she "would have become bitter and hostile and still be using."

Merrill is one of 2,622 people in Arizona who were addicted to drugs, committed crimes and were put on probation and diverted into treatment outside the prison system. Of that number, 21 percent, or 551 probationers could have been locked up had it not been for a new Arizona program that favors treatment over jail for certain drug offenders.

Proposition 200, approved by voters in 1996 made Arizona the only state in the country to prohibit incarceration of first-and second-time nonviolent drug offenders in favor of mandatory treatment. The program has already saved taxpayers more than $2.5 million in its first fiscal year of operation, which ended in June 1998.

Seventy-seven percent of the diverted offenders tested drug-free at the end of their treatment programs, according to an Arizona Supreme Court report released last month.

The program's success is drawing attention from the federal government and other states, who are dealing with prisons and jails overflowing with 1.8 million inmates, 400,000 of whom are addicted to drugs.

"With this Supreme Court report, we have won the war of Do drugs, do time.' We say: Do drugs, do treatment,'" said Sam Vagenas, Director of Arizonans for Drug Policy Reform, and the campaign director of Proposition 200.

"We are heading into a medical paradigm to treat drug offenders instead of a criminal paradigm. I hope that someday such a notion of warehousing someone because they are a drug user is foreign," Vagenas said.

Even the nation's drug czar, retired Army Gen. Barry McCaffrey is warming to the idea of abandoning a "war on drugs" mentality and instead finding ways to reduce drug use that "are more analogous to the fight against cancer."

"We are not fighting a war on drugs ... Addicted Americansparents, siblings, childrenare not the enemy, they require treatment. Wars are waged with weapons and soldiers; prevention and treatment are the primary tools in our fight against drugs," McCaffrey said in congressional testimony in April.

The Clinton administration has earmarked $100 million in funds in next year's budget to finance drug treatment programs across the country. It has also encouraged states to establish drug courts with authority to drop drug charges for offenders who go through treatment and stay off drugs.

More than 400 drug courts operate around the country, up from 12 in 1994.

Arizona's Drug Medicalization, Prevention and Control Act of 1996, approved by voters 65 to 35 percent, finances the treatment of drug offenders through a luxury tax on alcohol. The law also decriminalized marijuana when used for medicinal purposes.

Voters reaffirmed the law 57 to 43 last November after legislators moved to weaken it. Phoenix entrepreneur John Sperling funded the initiative.

Steven Belenko, a senior research associate with the New York-based Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse said that if sentencing reform laws are passed in other states, it would likely happen as a result of ballot initiatives.

"A politician wants to say lock' em up.' The public is a little more flexible and more willing to accept alternatives to incarceration for non-violent offenders with drug problems." Belenko said.

The Bureau of Justice Statistics reports that state and federal inmates receiving substance abuse treatment in prisons has been declining. In 1991, one-third of prisoners who had been using drugs in the month before their offense received drug treatment. In 1997 that number dropped to 15 percent. For those prisoners who committed crimes while on drugs, 40 percent received treatment in 1991, compared to 18 percent in 1997.

In Arizona, it will be another year before the recidivism rate can be established to determine how many of the people who received treatment stay clean, according to Arizona Supreme Court Spokesman John MacDonald.

"It is an issue that exists in every state in one form or another. The fact that this came out of Arizona, which is viewed as a conservative state, is pretty compelling," MacDonald said.
 
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