Maryland pioneers way to keep ex-cons straight

In controversial move, the state uses drug tests and treatment for

Chanta Whiting knows that if she trips up she could end up back in jail - in a flash. It happened once before.

A recovering heroin addict, she's on parole for stealing a car after violating parole for dealing drugs. But this time, she's determined to stay straight - and the criminal-justice system is giving her a stern, but helping hand.

Twice a week, the tough, street-smart Ms. Whiting, who started using cocaine at age 13, is required to take a drug test. If she fails, she knows she'll face an immediate sanction, but she will also get increased help in the form of more intensive drug treatment, if that's what she needs.

"I'm working on keeping my freedom," she says. "I see it every day, and I don't want to loose it."

Whiting is a beneficiary of the quiet revolution under way in America's criminal-justice system - a revival of the idea that offenders can be rehabilitated. At its heart is the notion that drug treatment is a primary key to helping them turn around their lives, even if it's coerced - a notion unheard of just five years ago.

Across the country, state and federal prisons are increasingly offering and, in many cases, requiring drug treatment for the 75 to 80 percent of the prison population that is drug addicted.

Coerced treatment

But a handful of states, including Maryland, are also taking a new, sometimes controversial tack. They're combining intensive drug testing with tough sanctions and increased treatment services.

The Maryland program, one of the first in the country to try to go statewide, is called Break the Cycle. A preliminary study to be released in February has found it to be effective in helping offenders like Whiting stay on the straight and narrow.

"There's a growing recognition that we've gotten out of the 'lock 'em up' philosophy," says Faye Taxman, Bureau of Governmental Research director at the University of Maryland, in College Park. "What Maryland is doing is combing the rehabilitative and the punitive approaches in a way that is seamless, not just haphazard."

Maryland started experimenting with alternatives to incarceration several years ago. A pilot program combined all of the state parole and probation services - from boot camps to home detention to drug treatment to education, all under one roof.

Called the Correctional Options Program (COP), offenders and their probation officers together choose the most appropriate punishment and treatment. And like Whiting, all of the 3,000 offenders in COP are initially drug tested twice a week.

The longer they stay clean, the more freedom they're given and the fewer tests they have to take. But one failed urine test will bring an immediate sanction, in the form of increased supervision, testing, and treatment. In extreme cases - like Whiting's, when she dropped out of treatment and stole a car - it can bring jail.

"Research has shown that coerced treatment does work, and that testing as a part of treatment creates accountability, especially when there's an immediate sanction [with] failure," says Rick Faulkner of the National Institute of Correction.

For those on Maryland's front line, COP required a complete change in the way they related to offenders - and a lot more work. But many, like probation officer Joanne Gamble, say the approach is long overdue: "The various options ... give them a fighting chance, as opposed to just going back to prison."

A National Council on Crime and Delinquency study found that recidivism was cut in half after a year. State officials were so impressed that they expanded COP last year. The goal is to involve all 25,000 of the state's drug-addicted parolees and probationers.

"We will be the first state in the US to go to a very sophisticated, very strict level of supervision for every drug-addicted offender," backing it up with treatment and sanctions, says Leonard Sipes of the Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services.

Growing pains

But there have been growing pains. Because of the increased workload for probation and parole officers, some offenders who fail urine tests aren't getting the immediate sanction that theoretically is so crucial in making coerced treatment work well.

"The sanctions are the hardest piece to put in place ... because you're asking people to change their work habits, how they talk to people," says Ms. Taxman. "It's basically moving from a reactive to a proactive system."

Taxman's study of the first 19,000 offenders in the program shows that it is having an impact. At the start, 34 percent tested positive for drug use. At the end of 60 days, that dropped to 14 percent - a 54 percent decrease.

Michigan, which has had extensive drug testing in its prisons for several decades, also started a similar program for its parolees. If offenders fails a drug test, they are sent to jail immediately for three days. Studies there show the number of offenders who tested positive for drugs dropped from 20 percent to 2 percent.

"We think the strategy proves that people can exercise control over their drug usage and learn how to manage it in a coercive environment," says Tom Combs of the Michigan Department of Corrections, in Lansing.

He touts the fact that people are able to remain in the community, use out-patient treatment, and keep their jobs.

Many critics of coercive treatment doubt whether the offenders will be able to remain drug-free after they're released from the strict supervision and testing. They believe the change must come from within the person.

Chanta Whiting has mixed feelings. She's working on a General Equivalency Diploma and a tractor-trailer license. Ultimately, she'd like to work with computers. And as much as she's grateful for the initial push that put her on the track to a straight life, she knows the rest of it is up to her.

"Nobody can give it to you on a silver platter. It takes a lot of work," she smiles. "But it pays off in the long run, that I know."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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