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Archive for Sunday, January 30, 2005

Drug treatment appears to be sound alternative to prison time, so far

January 30, 2005

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A Kansas law aimed at putting low-level drug offenders in treatment programs rather than prison appears to be working.

"Overall, it's going very well," said Bev Metcalf, president of Mirror Inc., a drug and alcohol treatment program based in Newton.

The law -- often referred to as Senate Bill 123 -- took effect Nov. 1, 2003, and directed judges to send nonviolent, felony drug offenders to treatment programs rather than prison.

Officials say the law has now been in place long enough to begin assessing its effectiveness.

"We're seeing a high level of compliance," said Les Sparling, CEO at Central Kansas Foundation, a drug and alcohol treatment program with offices in Salina, Abilene and Junction City. "To my knowledge, none of the 135 (offenders) we've engaged in treatment have been reincarcerated."

Offenders who fail to change their ways can be put in a county jail for as many as 60 days. After their third conviction, they face mandatory prison time.

The law applies only to adults convicted of felony drug possession. It does not apply to those convicted of selling or manufacturing drugs, or caught with drug paraphernalia.

Kansas Sentencing Commission records show that since November 2003, 1,146 offenders have been referred to drug treatment programs.

So far, Senate Bill 123 hasn't had much impact in Douglas County.

"I'm guessing we've had about a dozen cases. That's all," said Ron Stegall, chief executive probation officer for Douglas County.








There is a reason the law has not produced more cases here. Stegall said about the time Senate Bill 123 took effect, the Douglas County District Attorney's Office launched a diversion program aimed at keeping low-level drug offenders out of court.

"Essentially, those who took advantage of diversion decreased our numbers," he said.

Also, Stegall said, he's noticed a significant increase in the number of drug paraphernalia possession charges filed since Senate Bill 123 took effect.

"Paraphernalia cases aren't eligible for Senate Bill 123," he said.

Recently sworn-in Douglas County Dist. Atty. Charles Branson said he intends to review his office's diversion policies.

"We're only in week three," he said. "But there will be comprehensive review, it's coming. I support Senate Bill 123. For nonviolent offenders, I think it makes sense to spend money on treatment rather than locking them up, which is expensive."

Lawmakers set aside $5.5 million for Senate Bill 123 for fiscal 2005, which ends June 30.

"From July 1, 2004, to Jan. 26, 2005, we've spent $2,278,313," said Patricia Biggs, director of the sentencing commission. "So we should end the (fiscal) year right at $5.5 million."

State officials have estimated the annual average cost of treatment per offender at about $6,500 versus the $19,000 it costs to keep an offender imprisoned.

Biggs said the commission has collected $12,021 from offenders and $67,495 from their insurance companies to help defray costs of treatment.

The law's apparent early success raises the question whether lawmakers should adjust the sentences of drug users now in prison for offenses equal to those now resulting in treatment.

"I'm reluctant to try that this (legislative) session because we don't yet have quite enough data to support it," said Sen. John Vratl, a Leawood Republican who's both chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee and a member of the state sentencing commission.

"But once the data is there and assuming it supports retroactivity, then, yes, it should be pursued," Vratl said.

Department of Correction records show that more than 700 inmates could be eligible for release if Senate Bill 123 were made retroactive.

But John Green, an undersheriff with the Sedgwick County Sheriff's Department and vice president of the Kansas Peace Officers Assn., warned that many inmates -- most, perhaps -- serving time for drug possession also had committed more serious offenses but agreed to lesser pleas.

"Retroactivity wouldn't bother me -- with one caveat," Green said. "There would have to something that would keep someone from getting out (early), who, in reality, pleaded down.

"There aren't very many people in prison for simple possession -- and that's all," he said.

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