Pubdate: Mon, 10 Feb 2003
Source: Omaha World-Herald (NE)
Copyright: 2003 Omaha World-Herald Company
Author: Henry J. Cordes


Whenever a criminal goes out in search of opportunity, he's almost sure to 
have a partner in crime: substance abuse.

Seventy-five percent to 85 percent of inmates coming into Nebraska's 
prisons need treatment for drug or alcohol addiction.

A 2001 federal study found that 69 percent of those arrested in Omaha 
tested positive for drug use - and that was of those who agreed to the 

Despite those mind-boggling numbers, treatment can be hard to come by in 
Nebraska's criminal justice system.

Hundreds of addicts are locked up each year and eventually leave prison 
without appropriate treatment.

Lower-level criminals find a shortage of public assistance to pay for 
expensive treatment and waiting lists at treatment centers, increasing the 
chances that their abuse eventually will help land them in a prison cell.

Nebraska now is considering steps to divert more addicted felons from 
prison into community-based treatment programs.

Options could include special probation units for drunken drivers, expanded 
use of drug courts and more public dollars for treatment.

If Nebraska does turn to more treatment in lieu of prison, it will be 
joining a national trend.

Arizona and California voters have passed initiatives aimed at treating 
thousands of low-level, nonviolent drug offenders. Drug courts, which 
divert offenders into supervised treatment programs, are proliferating 
around the country.

Nebraska has adult drug courts available in only six of its 93 counties, 
and those aren't serving as many offenders as they could because of lack of 
capacity and funds.

The trend toward diverting drug offenders has been largely driven by economics.

The nation's prisons for two decades have been filling up with drug dealers 
and addicts. Outpatient treatment costs about $5,000 a year compared to 
nearly $23,000 for a prison bed. Studies show that every dollar spent on 
treatment saves between $4 and $7 in public criminal justice costs.

But experts say it's also a matter of what is best for the offender and 
public safety.

"There are a lot of offenders out there that, if you remove the drug abuse, 
you also remove the crime," said Denise Herz, a former University of 
Nebraska at Omaha criminal justice professor who studied drug treatment in 

Treatment doesn't always work. But one federal study found that those 
treated for drug addiction in prison were 73 percent less likely to be 
re-arrested later than those not treated.

Jamie Wert knows the link between substance abuse and crime. The Michigan 
native said his heavy drinking was what started a downward spiral that 
landed him in prison in Nebraska last year. He was drunk when he got caught 
trying to steal computers after a break-in at Creighton University.

"Most of the people here aren't the hard-nosed criminals you see in the 
movies," he said last fall before completing his sentence. "If I wasn't 
drinking, I wouldn't be here."

Within Nebraska's prisons, there are waits of up to six months for 
substance abuse treatment, putting help out of reach for many offenders on 
shorter sentences. A bigger problem is getting offenders the level of 
treatment that meets their needs, said Bill Schnackenberg, who directs the 

It's not known how many lower-level criminals in the state probation system 
aren't getting treatment, but a federal study offers an indication.

Five percent of arrestees in Omaha in 2001 told researchers they had been 
treated for substance abuse the previous year, the third-lowest figure 
among the 33 major cities studied.
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