By David Shapiro

Saturday, August 10, 1996


State should focus on
drug treatment

VINNY Marino's latest autobiography, "Journey from Hell," is 291 pages long. About 150 pages are his story and the other 141 are his ego.

To hear Vinny tell it, at various times in his life he was the best junkie, the best crook, the best toilet cleaner, the best cook and now the best drug counselor. From his parents to his first board of directors at Habilitat, the Kaneohe drug-treatment center he founded and directs, he's never met an authority figure he could get along with.

Government agencies, the news media and charitable foundations consist mostly of "morons" to be conned, scammed and manipulated to further Vinny's ends. Oh, how much easier life must be for those who harbor no self-doubt.

But this rambling tour of Marino's conceits is worth reading in an age of rampant drug abuse - particularly among juveniles - that poisons our society with mindless crime.

Marino provides a blunt and unapologetic picture of the mind of a junkie. He forces you to give up any notion that it's possible to reform drug addicts simply by appealing to the addict's sense of reason, pride or guilt. As Marino puts it, addicts feel sorry only for themselves.

Successful recovery programs must do more than just clean up the addict for a few weeks. The addict must learn the social and occupational skills to manage his or her life without drugs. This can take two years of intense residential treatment.

Yet most programs in Hawaii other than Habilitat provide relatively brief residential treatment as the state and private health insurers tighten funding. Despite good intentions, these programs have low success rates.

Think about this in the context of incoming prison chief Keith Kaneshiro's call for building more prison space in Hawaii. It makes sense if you buy the idea that the current system is on track and all you need to solve the problem is more of the current system.

But the current system is a miserable failure. Our courts - especially juvenile courts - are awash with more drug offenders than they can process. Prisons and youth detention facilities are bursting at the seams with drug offenders. So we send the ones we don't have room for off to Texas or put them back on the streets.

It's an infinite loop that will produce an endless need for more prison space unless we break the cycle by dealing with the drug addiction that is behind so much of the crime.

What if, instead of building more prisons, we put the money into funding proven long-term residential drug treatment programs?

It would get criminals off the streets the same as sending them to prison if judges had the option of sentencing drug offenders to recovery centers. It might actually rehabilitate these criminals and reduce the number of future drug-related crimes. Good drug treatment programs turn out productive citizens. Prisons turn out hardened criminals with bigger drug habits than ever.

MARINO'S 1974 study indicated that monthly costs per resident were $1,035 at the state prison, $986 at the Koolau youth facility and $250 at Habilitat. I'm sure the dollar amounts have skyrocketed since 1974, but the ratios probably are much the same.

As the Kaneshiro appointment heads for Senate confirmation, the Legislature and the governor are arguing about whether the prison system needs a corrections expert or just a good administrator. Given the role drugs play in putting so many of those inmates in prison, maybe what the system needs most is expertise in long-term treatment for drug addiction.



David Shapiro is managing editor of the Star-Bulletin.
He can be reached by e-mail at editor@starbulletin.com.
Volcanic Ash runs every Saturday in the Star-Bulletin.

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