Connecticut Tries 'Gentler' Approach To Curb Drug Use

Donned in a traditional black robe, gavel in hand, Judge Jorge Simon gravely summons four drug defendants before his imposing wooden bench.

"I think you know why I brought you up here together: You're moving onto the next level in the program," he says, breaking into a smile. "All of you have surpassed my expectations. I'm very proud."

The courtroom breaks into applause, the judge jumps down from the bench and gives each defendant a bear hug and a certificate.

"And you, Perry," Judge Simon says, slapping one of them on the back. "You're going to have to smile more if you're going to be ready for what's coming."

This is judicial action, Connecticut style. While much of the country is coping with the increasing number of drug felons by building new prisons and imposing tough new mandatory sentencing laws, Connecticut has decided it's time to take a new tack: treating drug addiction as much as a public-health challenge as a criminal-justice problem. That has put the state at the forefront of a fledgling national grass-roots movement that is rethinking the "get tough, lock 'em up" approach to dealing with drug use.

"We finally reached a point where rather than cower at being called 'soft on crime,' we said, 'wait a minute, the emperor has no clothes here, this so-called drug war's a failure,' " says state Rep. Mike Lawlor (D), chairman of Connecticut's House Judiciary Committee.

From Baltimore to Arizona, California to Oklahoma, state and local officials dealing with overcrowded prisons, clogged court dockets, and a seemingly unending stream of new youthful drug offenders are beginning to look for alternative ways of dealing with the drug problem.

Baltimore's controversial mayor, Kurt Schmoke (D), is pouring millions of city dollars into treatment programs. The Arizona referendum that was approved 2 to 1 last year not only decriminalized marijuana for medical uses, but also called for the state to provide treatment instead of incarceration for nonviolent drug offenders' first two offenses.

What makes Connecticut stand out is that it's the state government - not outside groups pushing a referendum or a rebellious local official - that is taking the lead in reform. "Maybe it's because we went in the opposite direction first," says state Sen. Toni Harp (D), who represents New Haven. "We built a whole series of new prisons just to see them fill up and realize we still needed to build more."

In 1980, Connecticut incarcerated an average of 3,800 people on any given day. Today, that number has more than quadrupled to 16,000. The cost of incarceration has skyrocketed from $55 million in 1980 to more than $400 million today. Compare that with the state's spending on education: It was $400 million in 1980, and it remains $400 million today.

But even with such costs, reformers in Connecticut say it was difficult to begin a discussion of alternatives because of a political climate that almost immediately demonized such talk as "soft on crime." Enter three nonpolitical commissions that studied the problem and concluded a public-health approach to the drug problem would be more cost effective, improve public safety, and be better for the drug addicts and their communities.

"What this allowed us to do was move past the rhetoric that tries to kill any discussion of reform," says Rep. Ellen Scalettar (D), vice chairwoman of the Judiciary Committee.

Doing away with sentencing

Connecticut's Law Revision Commission, which produced one of the independent studies, proposed a wide-ranging set of reforms - from a controversial, experimental heroin-maintenance program to doing away with mandatory sentences for drug sales.

Chief State's Attorney Jack Bailey, Connecticut's top law-enforcement officer, balked."Some of the proposed legislation sent the wrong message to children and law enforcement," says Mr. Bailey, who vigorously fought against them.

The resulting compromise didn't go as far as reformers had hoped, but it still put the state at the forefront of drug-policy reform. It calls for increased spending on treatment, a pilot methadone-treatment program in prisons, as well as an experimental effort allowing doctors to prescribe the heroin substitute (methadone, in most states, is available only in drug clinics.)

The bill also created an Alcohol and Drug Policy Council comprised not only of legislators, but also of members of the state's social-service and criminal-justice bureaucracies. The council is charged with coordinating all of the state's drug policies and programs, doing away with duplication of services while increasing their overall effectiveness.

"That's a really important method to further depoliticize the process: let the experts recommend the most effective tactics outside of the political process," says Representative Lawlor.

The law also requires the state to put a drug court - like Judge Simon's - in every jurisdiction in Connecticut. Nationally, there are about 300 alternative courts that use the criminal-justice system to encourage treatment. The vast majority are in California, Florida, Ohio, and Oklahoma. Connecticut is the first state to call for a drug court in every jurisdiction.

Staying clean and sober

In Judge Simon's court, cheers, tears, hugs, and hearty slaps on the back are routine fare - but so is a swift, stern response to any transgressions. His "clients" are nonviolent drug offenders who have pleaded guilty and opted to risk guaranteed jail time for the chance to stay clean and sober for a year. If they succeed, their convictions will be vacated.

If they fail, they go directly to jail to serve their full sentence.

The defendants are required to go through a four-phase treatment program, undergo regular random drug testing, and appear before the judge every two weeks so he can assess their progress.

"Once they reach a certain level, they have to work or go to school full time," says Simon. "You try to turn their life into something more productive than one of just taking."

In the 16 months Simon's court has been operating, 75 to 80 percent of the more than 100 defendants have stayed in the program. That compares with an estimated 20 to 30 percent success rate for regular drug-treatment programs.

Drug courts have won fans across the political spectrum. But many conservatives are leery of some of the other reforms coming out of Connecticut and, particularly, Arizona and California.

"You can have change for the sake of novelty," says John Walters, deputy director of the White House drug-policy office in the Bush administration. "Connecticut can do whatever it wants, but if you want to know what works here, it's tough enforcement, hard-headed adequately-funded treatment, and hard-headed adequately-supported prevention programs."

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