Pubdate: Sun, 07 May 2000
Source: Knoxville News-Sentinel (TN)
Copyright: 2000, The Knoxville News-Sentinel Co.
Contact:  PO Box 59038, Knoxville, TN 37950-9038
Author: Richard Powelson, News-Sentinel Washington bureau


East Tennessee Rep. Zach Wamp, an admitted cocaine addict two decades
ago who got successful rehabilitation, is trying through federal
legislation to help others with drug problems to get straight, avoid
prison time and thereby lower taxpayers' costs.

Wamp was able to get effective drug treatment, strengthen his
religious beliefs, end abuse of alcohol and cocaine in 1984, get
steady employment in real estate, network well in politics, and won
his race for Congress in 1994. Every two years since then, he's been
re-elected and earned praise in Congress for his national and local
leadership on a variety of issues.

The Chattanooga Republican is backing legislation by Rep. John Mica,
R-Fla., to approve more federal funding for state programs which work
with drug offenders -- not dealers -- who are nonviolent, want to
overcome their alcohol or drug problems, and are willing to undergo
counseling, close supervision, drug testing and job training.

Wamp stressed how it now costs $31 billion a year to lock up, feed,
clothe and secure criminals, and the costs keep rising.

"What we're doing now is not working," Wamp said in an interview. He
has served on the House speaker's drug task force and looked at the
success and failure rates of a number of programs.

In his case, two close friends confronted him in 1984 about his
cocaine and alcohol abuse over five to six years, including a couple
of years of addiction, and how it was harming his chances for success
in life, he said. He was never charged with a drug crime. But their
firmness and disappointment with him got his attention.

"I knew I was losing control," he said.

Their influence prompted him to spend six weeks inside a drug
treatment center. He also got much aftercare, including spiritual help
from a church, he said. He also quit smoking cigarettes and began
exercising regularly to return to an athletic lifestyle that had
helped him become a most valuable player on the basketball team in
high school.

Alternative sentencing programs in Brooklyn, N.Y., and elsewhere
suggest that many more communities can save money on prisons and jails
by better drug rehab, probation and job training programs. The number
of repeat offenders -- and the crime rate -- also can drop from these
successful programs.

For example, a study of alternative sentencing programs for drug
offenses shows that about 70 percent of participants will stay off
drugs and commit no more crimes. By comparison, only 55 percent of
those using the standard court system will become law-abiding citizens.

Joseph Califano, former U.S. secretary of the old Department of
Health, Education and Welfare in the Carter administration, has said
that studies show the country's prison population has more than
tripled since 1980 to nearly 2 million. About 80 percent of prisoners
have a drug or alcohol abuse and addiction problem, he said, and need
effective treatment before their release.

How many of those taxpayer-supported inmates could have been diverted
to cheaper programs on the outside and trained for jobs? The current
system cannot answer this question.

According to public reports, there now are more than 400 alternative
sentencing programs across the country for drug and alcohol offenses
working with nearly 200,000 drug or alcohol abusers. But many more
could be helped.

Today Wamp is not only active in improving federal programs; he just
became president of the weekly prayer group for House members. Once a
week for an hour, he and 50 to 60 House members, including Knoxville
Rep. John J. Duncan Jr., get together to hear members lead prayers and
have related discussions.

His efforts to fund more effective drug rehabilitation is an idea that
is bound to gain momentum in Congress.
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