States Eye Drug Court As Alternative To Prison

Sunday, April 29th 2007, 1:45 pm
By: News On 6

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) -- Chris Althoff had nodded off in a drug-induced haze with a video-game controller in his hand when a police SWAT team raided his Norman home in 2004 and discovered thousands of illegal prescription pills and other narcotics.

With a previous arrest for drug trafficking already on his record, the 23-year-old was facing the possibility of life in prison because of the new charges.

"When I got arrested this last time, I knew it was over," Althoff recalled. "The sad thing was, I didn't even care."

As a last resort, prosecutors agreed to let Althoff enter drug court, an alternative to prison that many states across the country are using to stem the rising flow of drug offenders into prison systems already bursting at the seams.

Over the last three years, at least 22 states have developed initiatives to slow the growth of the inmate population, the most common of which are programs that divert drug offenders into treatment rather than prison cells, according to a March study by the Sentencing Project, a Washington, D.C.-based think-tank on criminal justice policy issues.

Laws to divert drug offenders from prison have been established since 2004 in Connecticut, Hawaii, Indiana, Louisiana, Maryland, North Dakota, Pennsylvania, Texas and Washington.

"We've seen a great deal of success in these diversion programs," said Ryan King, a policy analyst who authored the study. "There are a substantial number of drug arrests that occur every year in every state and at the federal level. Even more important than that, they tend to be the type of offense for which there are so many other options available."

Althoff, now 25, says the rigorous drug court program that included treatment, group therapy, drug testing, a curfew and participation in a 12 step support group was exactly what he needed to help him turn his life around.

"I couldn't do anything, really, except for drug court and work," Althoff said. "At first it was hard, but the alternative was much worse."

Now 25 and a recent graduate of the program, Althoff said he hasn't used drugs or alcohol for more than 2 1/2 years. In that time, he's started his own home remodeling company, gotten married, become a father and completed his associate's degree at a local community college.

He regularly attends church, even plays drums in a church band, and he's scheduled to begin this fall as a junior at the University of Oklahoma, where he plans to pursue a degree in geophysics.

As drug court success stories began to make their way to the Oklahoma Legislature, more lawmakers have adjusted their tough-on-crime stance and supported the initiative, but that wasn't always the case, said former state Sen. Dick Wilkerson, who authored the legislation to create a statewide drug court program in the late 1990s.

A retired law enforcement officer who worked narcotics for years, Wilkerson himself was used to busting drug offenders and sending them to prison and admits he was skeptical of the idea at first.

But as lawmakers continued to implement harsh sentencing for drug offenders in the 1980s and 1990s, the prison population in Oklahoma swelled and its operating budget exploded. Wilkerson said he saw that Colorado was having some success with drug court and thought it might work in Oklahoma.

"You've got to remember that back then, the only answer anyone could think of was to put these people in jail," Wilkerson said. "When we ran that drug court bill, people just said we were being soft on crime and coddling these guys. It's amusing to watch these same people say that they were always in favor of drug court.

"Success has many fathers."

Although the overall prison population continues to climb, the Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services, the state agency that oversees the drug court program, touts it as a cost-saving alternative since it costs the state about $5,000 annually for a drug court participant versus $21,000 to keep an offender locked up in prison.

The recidivism rate for drug court graduates also appears to compare favorably, with a 23.5% re-arrest rate for graduates, compared to 38.2% for standard probation and 54.3% for released inmates, according to DMHSAS statistics.

"This is the most successful program to affect the criminal justice system in history," said Jeremy Jarman, Oklahoma's state drug court coordinator.

"The positive outcomes we have we can actually show. These are tangible things," he said. "But there are also the intangibles, the drug-free babies born, the increases in income for participants, the reductions in unemployment.

"You take someone struggling with addiction turn them around and ripples from that are great."