Pubdate: Wed, 21 May 2003
Source: Houston Chronicle (TX)
Copyright: 2003 Houston Chronicle Publishing Company Division, Hearst Newspaper


SOMETIMES ANSWERS to a problem can be hiding in plain sight all around you.

After some of our state district judges issued a challenge last week in the 
search for ways to fill the approaching drug treatment void, many of the 
first responses came from people who pointed out existing programs and 

Substance abuse programs currently provided in state jails are scheduled to 
be discontinued in about five weeks because of budget cutbacks. The judges 
are challenging the community to come up with options.

Some of us might have assumed that our courts already know about all of the 
programs in the city that could offer alternatives to sentencing people to 
prison. But Judge Jim Wallace said there is no such master list and he 
would very much like to have one for ready reference.

List of drug treatments needed So the first thing that volunteers could do 
in taking up the judges' challenge is to inventory what currently is available.

We have 12-step programs. We have community centers. We have churches and 
civic clubs. We have Scout groups. We have United Way. We have a great many 
organizations that might provide judges with alternatives to handing down 
prison sentences and help thousands of young people every year turn their 
lives around.

Once young men and women get sent away to Texas Department of Criminal 
Justice units, where rehabilitation opportunities (that were never provided 
in sufficient amounts) are being reduced or eliminated because of budget 
problems, we lose too many of them for good.

Or, as Wallace put it: "We're criminalizing an entire generation."

And, he said, turning it around is a community problem, not just a criminal 
justice problem.

Some 80 percent of the cases on the court docket are drug-related, he said, 
and yet it has nearly reached the point where the only choice a judge has 
is to turn people loose without any help or treatment, or put them in prison.

Either way, the odds are high that they will be back in trouble, back in 
court, back in prison.

Compare the cost of keeping someone in prison for using drugs, said David 
Edwards, chairman of the Rotary Club of Houston's Fresh Start Committee, 
with the cost "of treating their addiction in the first place and getting 
them back in the work place, paying taxes and supporting their family."

After making an inventory of the available programs, volunteers can assess 
the needs for expanding them and for adding other services.

Housing, for example: Wallace said he would like to see some dormitory-type 
living quarters, with live-in dorm parents to provide supervision and 
advice. Many young people he sees in court could benefit from that kind of 

And then there's transportation. People who are placed on probation have 
meetings they must attend, appointments they must be on time for, and jobs 
to get to. Metro routes and schedules are not sufficient. A person who 
misses a meeting because of transportation problems can get so frustrated 
that he quits trying and soon accumulates so many probation or parole 
violations he winds up in prison.

A lot of work to do Saving a generation from criminalization is, in other 
words, a big problem with many facets. It will take a lot of figuring out 
and a yet-to-be-determined investment of time and money (although probably 
a whole lot less money than it cost to build any one of the city's new 
sports cathedrals).

Fortunately, Houston has a great many smart, big-hearted people, many of 
whom have strong personal motivation for taking on this challenge.

A space industry executive in the Clear Lake area e-mailed that her son is 
in prison "because of DWI's." She said she has had many discussions with 
his lawyer and with people in circumstances similar to hers, and they agree 
there has to be a better answer than prison.

"During these discussions, we have tossed around thoughts and ideas, but 
didn't know where to start," she wrote.

"What the judges are suggesting (in challenging the community) is exactly 
what needs to be done."
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