[ OUR OPINION ]
AFTER decades of burgeoning prison populations caused by a "get tough" approach to crime, Hawaii appears ready to join other states in turning to treatment of drug abuse as an alternative to incarceration. President Bush is promising to help the effort by emphasizing treatment in his administration's new drug policy. The Legislature should proceed to approve a bill directing first-time, nonviolent drug offenders to treatment programs instead of prison.
fits the crime
THE ISSUELegislative conferees have approved a bill that would require treatment instead of jail for first-time, nonviolent drug offenders.
Arizona became in 1996 the first state to pass an initiative providing for mandatory, community-based substance-abuse treatment of nonviolent drug-possession offenders, and California voters overwhelmingly approved a similar referendum two years ago. Other initiatives are planned this year in Florida, Michigan and Ohio.
Hawaii created a Drug Court on Oahu six years ago, allowing drug addicts charged with nonviolent crimes to plead guilty, with the agreement that the charges would be dismissed if they completed a drug-treatment program lasting an average of 18 months. The program has been successful and was expanded to Maui two years ago.
However, the Drug Court program has been limited to the few hundred offenders a year who qualify and agree to terms of the program. The state Department of Public Safety estimates that 85 percent of the state's 4,800 prison inmates need substance-abuse treatment. In a recent year, 40 percent of the 433 parolees who violated conditions of their release had done so for drug-related reasons.
Treatment programs do not provide a magical cure. Many people who need substance-abuse treatment don't want it, and studies show that more than half of those who submit to treatment use illicit drugs again within a year. However, such programs have been highly successful. In the year after treatment was provided by the city of Baltimore to every addict who wanted it, heroin use declined by 69 percent and cocaine use by 43 percent, while arrests went down by 40 percent.
The president, who admitted being a heavy drinker in the past and whose niece, a daughter of Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, has experienced drug problems, has called for two-thirds of the $357 million in federal anti-drug efforts to go to treatment. "We must aggressively promote drug treatment," he said, "because a nation that is tough on drugs must also be compassionate to those addicted to drugs."
The public has roundly supported drug-abuse treatment programs, but residential treatment facilities have been resisted in neighborhoods where they are proposed. That not-in-my-backyard opposition will need to be overcome to achieve the program's goals in Hawaii.
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