Drug treatment blocks the path to hell

Staff Writer
The Chronicle Express

On the most immediate level, drugs only harm the person who abuses them, but that is not the reality of experience. Drug abuse has myriad consequences that impact people around the abuser, and society as a whole. Beyond the shambles it makes of the user psychologically, the ever-increasing need to support their drug use drives them to more and more desperate measures. Once they have progressed to using opiates like heroin for that high, the mental and now physical dependency can push them to almost anything.

The young man who becomes drug-addicted likely fails out of school, cannot hold a job, and may begin a career of petty theft escalating then into burglary and robbery. The young woman who begins to use drugs that lower her inhibitions and self-esteem may plunge into casual sex with little thought of her possible pregnancy or the diseases she may contract. Either may soon act as a dealer to their circle of friends and even their younger siblings who emulate their behavior, spreading the contagion ever wider.

Family is often the first to feel the indirect harm of drugs. The parents who are lied to and find their bank accounts emptied.

The grandparents whose affection and trust are exploited for drug money.

The unexpected and unwanted children born to drug users, who are neglected or abused, become the responsibility of social services, and are more likely grow up to become drug users, and to neglect or abuse their own children.

Thus, the consequences to society spiral outward from one individual choice to try drugs.

How do we stop it? Many think it cannot be done. Every third grader knows that drugs are bad. So is swearing, skipping school, and disobeying their parents. But there will always be the child who has to know, who can never take the word of his elders, who has to burn himself before he believes the stove really is hot.

It is not malicious. It is not intentionally self-destructive. It is just part of human nature. No threat, no punishment will change it. Only the first-hand experience of the consequences will make them believe.

That is where the Yates County Drug Court steps in. The drug users who have begun to believe in the consequences, and who need help in overcoming their addiction, are offered this new ray of hope by a justice system that has been overwhelmed and dispirited by decades of a hard-nosed, incarceration-based approach to drug crimes.

Often called “crime college‚ “By law enforcement, in the old system, low level drug offenders are thrown in among violent felons and “lifers” who soon teach the new inmates the life of hardened criminals before their release.

Even if they leave prison with every intention of staying clean and going straight, the social stigma of being an “ex-con” severely hinders any chance of gainful employment, and only adds to the desire to get high again.

As court supervised treatment, the Yates County Drug Court is a judicial diversion program intended to keep otherwise non-violent offenders out of prisons where they are only likely to get worse.

“Addicts don’t get better in prison,” asserts Yates County Drug Court Coordinator Evelyn Watkins, who is a drug treatment therapist.

The numbers bear out her claim. With an approximate 70 percent rate of recidivism (the commission of new crimes after release), old-fashioned incarceration does a poor job of reforming drug criminals. Graduates of the drug court have only a 15 percent recidivist rate.

Conceived in Dade County Florida by former U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno, the all volunteer drug court teams are made up of stakeholders from all levels of justice and drug treatment providers with different responsibilities and missions.

In Yates County, the 10-member team includes Watkins, Judge Patrick Falvey, District Attorney Jason Cook, Sheriff Ron Spike and Probation Director Sharon Dawes. Their object is to get offenders into treatment quickly and monitor their progress far more closely than the traditional probation system was designed to do.

This is only possible with the cooperation of the offenders. They must agree to plead guilty and sign a contract which includes committing to regular individual, group, and full court meetings, urine screenings, employment and education, and staying clean and sober. The average program length is 280 days of clean time.

The Finger Lakes Addictions Counseling and Referral Agency, Inc. (FLACRA) has been an integral part of the program.

The five-county residential and treatment provider has an outpatient clinic in the Badger building in Penn Yan. FLACRA Coordinator Marty Teller says there has been a tremendous response from the community. The drug court has made recovery their object rather than punishment. The options for heroin addicts have improved as well. Methadone, the prescription drug long used to ween addicts off heroin, has been supplemented by a new drug, buprenorphine suboxone, to ease the withdrawal symptoms and loosen the hold opiates have on the addicts’ nervous systems. Beyond their cooperation with the drug court, FLACRA is open to anyone who seeks treatment, and welcomes all those who wish to recover.

They are bound by even more strict confidentiality than hospitals. Addicts who recognize their problem and voluntarily seek help from FLACRA may do so with no fear of having anything revealed to others.

Drug court has been criticized as being too soft on crime. “It’s not easy,” says Falvey. “Some see it and choose to have nothing to do with it,” preferring jail to the intensive scrutiny of the drug court team.

“We have to maintain the confidence of the community,” he explains.

There are immediate sanctions for any backsliding. The participants lose any clean time they’ve made and start over again, but treatment, rather than punishment, is the centerpiece of the program.

Successes are equally praised and by people who used to be seen as adversarial authority figures by the offenders.

This honesty and the face-to-face relationships have met with great success, and for the drug court graduates, the revolving door of drugs-crime-jail-release has been avoided.

Sheriff Ron Spike said it best when he described it as “Justice without bars.”

Falvey and Watkins have praised the cooperation and trust the team members have built between themselves and with the participants.

Poignant stories of families healed by recovery are routine. Graduates have gone on to help others within the program. The support of the county legislators, as well as village and town officials has been invaluable, they say.

Community volunteers have made contributions to the education and screening duties. All of this has helped numerous drug and alcohol addicted people succeed in reentering the ranks of contributing members of society rather than remain a drain upon the taxpayers.