Pubdate: Fri, 16 May 2003
Source: Houston Chronicle (TX)
Copyright: 2003 Houston Chronicle Publishing Company Division, Hearst Newspaper
Author:  Thom Marshall
Bookmark: (Treatment)


Some of our state criminal district court judges are challenging us to step 
up to the plate and take a swing at a serious and growing problem.

All substance abuse programs in state jails will close in about six weeks 
unless money is found to keep them going, and the way the budget's bleeding 
red ink, that seems highly unlikely.

Judge Jim Wallace said he sent a young man who had violated terms of his 
probation to state jail a few days ago. The substance abuse program there 
was just what the fellow needed to turn his life around. Wallace said the 
program had proven effective in helping others he had sent. And it provided 
an alternative to hard time in a prison unit.

But the judge got a memo saying the program appeared doomed.

"The state jail will continue to house state jail confinees," it said. But, 
it added, "The only treatment they will receive will be from outside 
sources that come into the state jail."

Judges left with few options This is just the latest blow.

"Every time you turn around there are fewer programs," Wallace said. "Every 
day you walk in here (the courthouse) and the box is smaller. You have 
fewer options."

He said it is almost to the point where a judge's only choice is sending 
someone to the pen or letting him go back on the street without any 
treatment or help in turning his life around.

"It isn't a criminal justice problem," he said, "it's a community problem."

To provide an example of just how large a problem it has become, Judge 
Caprice Cosper, who is coordinator of the drug courts program that soon 
will begin operating, said that last year in Harris County there were 6,566 
cases of possession of less than a gram of illegal drugs.

Add to that the thousands more cases of delivery, plus all the crimes that 
are committed for money to finance addictions, the judges said, and you 
wind up with 80 percent of the dockets consumed by drug problems.

"We're criminalizing an entire generation," Wallace said.

More and more families are being impacted. Judge Mike McSpadden said that 
nowadays, when a judge asks a panel of 60 potential jurors whether anyone 
in their families have been in trouble for drugs, 15 or 20 of them say yes, 
and must be disqualified. He's watched that number increase steadily over 
recent years.

So these are the elements:

Judges need options other than sentencing kids to prison for substance 
abuse problems.

State-funded options are disappearing.

Houston has a great many people who figure out how to solve problems.

(Just look at the brainpower at the Medical Center, at NASA, at the 
universities, at the many major corporations. People of Houston have 
figured out how to replace failing hearts, how to put men on the moon, how 
to finance and build more and bigger new sports facilities ... )

The judges are challenging the people of Houston to come up with 
alternatives to prison for kids with substance abuse problems.

Wanted: A leader More than one option is needed. Some substance abusers 
also need treatment for mental problems. Many need jobs or training so they 
can qualify for jobs. Many need someplace different to live so they don't 
have to return to their old neighborhoods and old, bad influences.

Wallace said he can arrange a place where people who are interested in 
answering this challenge can meet.

But before it can be planned and scheduled, a volunteer is needed who can 
lead such a meeting. Someone with experience in organizing large groups of 
people to deal with complex problems.

Cosper said there may be a company president or corporate executive who 
knows firsthand of the need for alternatives because of having a child who 
faced drug charges. Someone who knows we can do better.

Many of us have for years been concerned that young people are being dealt 
with too harshly for minor drug crimes.

Now we have an opportunity to be part of the answer.
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