Taxpayers spent hundreds of millions jailing non violent drug abusers, treatment a less expensive and more effective method

12:39 AM, Feb 25, 2011   |    comments
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Clearwater, Florida - 40 years ago President Richard Nixon declared the War on Drugs saying it was the number one enemy in the United States. Three years after declaring war, Nixon said it was won and the drug problem was under control in the country. However, the President should have said it was actually out of control. That fact was evident by the time Ronald Reagan became President and helped spur First Lady, Nancy Reagan to start a campaign "Just say no to drugs".

We asked Pinellas-Pasco Chief Judge Thomas McGrady if he felt after all the years of fighting the war on drugs the battle is being won? McGrady said it is not from the numbers he is seeing.

McGrady says 80 percent of the crimes are related to substance abuse, but for the most part the solution to the problem is incarceration. The Judge says in situations where they are non-violent, he believes it would be a better use of limited resources to put the effort toward treatment instead of imprisonment.

Courts throughout the state are trying to divert some drug offends to treatment instead of prison.  Pinellas Judge Dee Anna Farnell, who runs a drug court, says when you see people go on from their drug abuse problems and become positive members of the community it is just incredible.

But there aren't enough treatment programs and Florida currently houses 19,414 inmates for non-violent drug offenses costing taxpayers $377,971,166 a year

Casey Ebsary, a former drug court prosecutor, says he doesn't think drug users are bad people trying to be good, but rather sick people who want to get well. Ebsary says non-violent drug abusers should not be in prison.

However, some like Polk Sheriff Grady Judd says he believes that drug abusers should get treatment behind bars. Judd asks why tinker with a system that is keeping people safe in the community. He pleads with legislators and the Governor to leave the system alone.

While Judd says keeping drug abusers out of prison is radical, Ebsary says what he believes is radical is not sending someone who is selling a machine gun, a rocket launcher or who is a violent felon to jail. Ebsary says it happens all the time because of minimum mandatory sentences for drug users that take up prison space.

However, it's not just the monetary costs, when the courts sentence a drug abuser to prison instead of to a program there is a societal cost as well and there is a good chance the judge will see the drug abuser in his or her court again.

Ebsary says prison is graduate school for whatever they were doing before they got in.

Mary Lynn Ulray, the executive director of a Drug Treatment Program DACCO, says she thinks the legislature is starting to understand there is a cost benefit from drug treatment.

 Ulray says the agency's 6 month residential program has close to a 70 percent success rate  in six months at a cost of $10,000 compare that to the average 6.4 year sentence costing taxpayer $124,601 per offender.

According to Ulray, until the system recognizes the mental health substance abuse parity with other diseases, there will be a problem. She says you can't lock people up because they have cancer or have diabetes.  Ulray says drug abuse is also a disease.

But as long as drug abusers are locked up, the cost to taxpayers will continue to be a major problem just as drug use is 40 years after Nixon declared a war that clearly is being lost.

Mike Deeson

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