Tuesday, January 20, 2015

The solution to our drug problem?

We're all quite familiar with the County's drug problem, whether through anecdotes about only a handful of job applicants being able to pass a drug test to numerous stories of fake prescriptions to Facebook fury insisting welfare recipients be drug tested. HeraldStandard.com even ran a series of short documentaries on the drug problem. One recovering addict told his story, while police and emergency responders discussed well-known problem areas and referred to the issue as a "epidemic."

I've been saying for a few years I feel one of the keys to solving Fayette County's problems is in treating drug abusers as addicts rather than criminals, because arresting an addict doesn't end the addiction. I have a relative with a drug problem who's been in and out of jail my entire life for drugs, and clearly if we're dealing with 25+ years of a problem, we haven't found a solution.

Beyond that, a drug abuser has committed a victimless crime. Yes, addiction hurts the addict and their loved ones and some drug abusers commit other crimes to fuel their habit (or maybe even sparked by the habit), but the actual act of taking a drug directly harms no one but the user. The time, money, and manpower dedicated to addicts could be far better spent on violent criminals--people who are directly harming other people, and I'm sure we're all quite aware we have plenty of those, too.

Fayette County isn't the first county to have a drug problem, and it won't be the last. But other areas in the country are ahead of us in terms of actually solving their drug problems.

Some states and counties are using drug courts, and some have been doing so for years. Successfully.

Take Georgia, for example, which has established "accountability courts," including treatment-focused drug courts. They explain it best:
The mission of drug courts is to stop the abuse of alcohol and other drugs and related criminal activity. Drug courts offer a compelling choice for individuals whose criminal justice involvement stems from AOD use: participation in treatment. In exchange for successful completion of the treatment program, the court may dismiss the original charge, reduce or set aside a sentence, offer some lesser penalty, or offer a combination of these.  
Drug courts transform the roles of both criminal justice practitioners and AOD treatment providers. The judge is the central figure in a team effort that focuses on sobriety and accountability as the primary goals. Because the judge takes on the role of trying to keep participants engaged in treatment, providers can effectively focus on developing a therapeutic relationship with the participant. In turn, treatment providers keep the court informed of each participant's progress so that rewards and sanctions can be provided.  
Drug courts create an environment with clear and certain rules. The rules are definite, easy to understand, and most important, compliance is within the individual's control. The rules are based on the participant's performance and are measurable. For example, the participant either appears in court or does not, attends treatment sessions or does not; the drug tests reveal drug use or abstinence. The participant's performance is immediately and directly communicated to the judge, who rewards progress or penalizes noncompliance. A drug court establishes an environment that the participant can understand--a system in which clear choices are presented and individuals are encouraged to take control of their own recovery. 
Now, I'd like prefer it if counselors played a more central role as opposed to judges. That said, the drug courts are effective.

In Georgia, for example, 29% of prison inmates with addiction issues committed another crime within two years of their release, while only 7% of those who completed drug court re-offended--and 77.6% of those who enrolled completed it. Drug courts are cheaper, too, operating at $20 a day as opposed to $51 for prison. Finally, it's estimated that drug court saved the state $14 million in 2009.

I focus on Georgia's drug courts only because theirs were the first I've heard of. Pennsylvania does have some drug courts, but I haven't found much data. However, one study of the use of drug courts in Pennsylvania--which includes neighboring Washington County--did find they saved money, and all counties reported success stories of reformed drug users who were able to turn their lives around. But funding is also a crucial factor, although former governor Corbett did support expanding that funding.

Like everything, drug courts aren't perfect. Opponents cite the difficulty of the program and harsh sentences for relapses, as well as the percentage of enrollees who don't complete them. But if we look at Fayette County, we need a solution, and drug courts are a good start--especially when our current resources for addicts are little more than methadone clinics and lists of treatment centers.

I strongly believe drug courts could be a step in the right direction for us, especially when they're saving money and, most importantly, lives. And as citizens who are well-aware of the problem, I urge you to take action, as I plan to.

You can contact the county commissioners here by clicking on their names below their pictures. I know we're all frustrated with those commissioners, so because of that and the importance of state funding for the programs to be successful, I also encourage you to contact newly minted Governor Wolf.

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