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Drug Policy & Treatment in Ohio, Part 1

Thursday, March 28, 2002 at 1:39 PM

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Today, over 70,000 people are receiving help from the state for substance abuse problems. Some are in treatment because they asked for it, but the majority come through the criminal justice system. This fall, Ohioans will be asked to decriminalize the treatment system for certain kinds of drug addicts. 90.3 WCPN's April Baer reports on the tens of thousands of people at the center of the debate: non-violent drug abusers.

April Baer: The year was 1986. Huey Lewis was on the radio, the Reagans were in the White House, and the War on Drugs was on the march. At the federal level, Congress was passing a series of drug sentencing laws called mandatory minimums. If you were convicted of a federal drug crime, you could be certain of a prison term. In subsequent years, Ohio’s policies followed the federal example. Lewis Katz is professor of criminal law at Case Western Reserve University. He says during the late 80’s and early 90’s, state leaders were anxious to avoid appearing soft on crime.

Lewis Katz: Drug offenses, which are perhaps at the lower end of the range of serious felonies are treated much more seriously. Whereas with less serious non-drug felonies there’s a presumption against imprisonment.

AB: The year federal mandatory minimums took effect, the number of people admitted to state prisons for drug crimes was about fifteen hundred. By 1991, that number had quadrupled. Voices from within the judiciary pleaded for more reasonable drug policie-among them, Judge Burt Griffin, who sits on the bench on Cuyahoga County’s Court of Common Pleas. He’s also spent twelve years on the Ohio Criminal Sentencing Commission.

Burt Griffin: We decided we didn’t want to do what the feds were doing.

AB: Judge Griffin and others worked to build options into the system for non-violent offenders. Today, a judge may still send people to prison on a first-time possession rap, but at least they also have the option of prescribing treatment. Although the number of felons entering Ohio’s prisons on drug charges has remained stable, with 6,200 people incarcerated last year from drug crimes, Judge Griffin says sentencing has improved tremendously. He says there are a number of reasons that might explain why the number of incarcerations has not dropped.

BG: There’s been tremendous community pressure on arresting people who are drug possessors - there’s been a great increase in arrests. There’s a tremendous increase in drug testing… we have practically a whole floor of a building urine samples that are in refrigeration. We’re up to about 20,000 urine samples a year.

AB: More testing, and better testing, he says, may explain more prisoners. Also, he points out that the court system still refers more people to treatment each year than any other agency. Judge Griffin shares responsibility for another relatively new option.

This Cleveland Municipal courtroom is one of Ohio’s specialized drug courts.

“All rise...”

When Judge Larry Jones sits down behind the bench, he’s facing people who were busted for low-level drug possession, with no prior felony convictions. They’ve been singled out early, and the County Prosecutor’s office has agreed to release their cases to drug court. The felons are given drug treatment, three days a week, and a chance to stay out of prison. Today’s group is what Judge Jones refers to as a Rocket Docket - people who’ve stayed clean.

Judge Jones to offenders: And how has your treatment program going?

AB: Judge Jones is a big fan of personal responsibility. If his charges don’t stick to the program, he sends them to work service, or back to the county jail. But hundreds have stayed clean in Ohio’s drug courts-and out of prison. For every person Judge Jones steers toward treatment, he says a multitude of others never make it to rehab.

Larry Jones: It’s thousands and thousands and thousands. And the unfortunate part about our program is it’s a pilot program and we have limited resources. It costs somewhere between $25,000 and $30,000 to house a person in prison.

AB: By comparison, the cost of drug court treatment and supervision is about $5,000 per person.

LJ: And if you don’t follow through with the program, the criminal justice system will be hanging over your head.

AB: Relapses do happen, but at a much lower rate than in other courts. Its record is better than regular courts. Graduates’ recidivism rate is close to 7% - much less than the 75% rate in Ohio’s regular courts.

Drug courts can only handle a handful of the felons who come through the courts each year. The rest may get treatment in prison. Or they may fall through the cracks. The prevailing opinion among those who know addiction best, is that the state should go farther, that drug abusers inevitably become more of a problem when they’re left untreated. Helen Jones is the president of Recovery Resources, a Cleveland non-profit that provides help for people dealing with substance abuse and mental health.

Helen Jones: I think that most of our laws currently really are punitive in nature. There’s beginning to be what looks like some genuine dialogue in this country about taking treatment more serious, but for the most part, the laws that are on the books are very punitive in nature.

AB: Tomorrow at this time we’ll have more about drug treatment efforts, and the group that’s asking Ohioans to make treatment mandatory. In Cleveland, I’m April Baer.

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