County officials have unveiled the details of a $1.1 million federal grant to fund a program for substance-abuse treatment as an alternative to prison for some defendants convicted of drug offenses.
Pima County Attorney Barbara LaWall announced the grant at a news conference Thursday, Dec. 1.
“Substance abuse really ravages our neighborhoods and community,” LaWall said. “The impact is, quite frankly, staggering.”
The grant would fund a program officials call Drug Treatment Alternative to Prison Project.
Pima County Superior Court Presiding Judge Jan Kearney, Pima County Public Defender Robert Hirsh and The Haven treatment center director Margaret Higgins also attended and lauded the program’s implementation.
LaWall said the program would divert qualifying defendants convicted of drug-related crimes into treatment. A goal of the program would be reduce recidivism.
The program would accommodate 20 participants in its first year, and 30 in subsequent years.
Others could participate in the alternative sentencing project if they paid the costs through insurance, out-of-pocket or qualified for state assistance, LaWall said. Mental-health defendants would not be eligible. Male participants would attend treatment through Compass Behavioral Health Care, and female participants would go to The Haven.
LaWall said Pima County has seen a 171 percent increase in the number of drug prosecutions since 2002. The county prosecutes as much as 30 percent of the state’s drug case load, though it has 15 percent of the overall population of Arizona, LaWall said.
She called Pima County a “drug-saturated environment.”
Even before it’s been implemented, the program has received praise from disparate quarters.
“It doesn’t happen often that I say nice things about the county attorney’s office,” Pima County Public Defender Robert Hirsh said. Hirsh, a high-profile defense lawyer in Tucson for decades, has often been at the opposite end of the courtroom from LaWall.
“I have nothing but praise for Barbara LaWall to do this,” Hirsh said. “It’s absolutely the right thing to do.”
Eligible drug court defendants would be diverted to the program, where they would be placed into residential drug treatment. Participants would have to report regularly to a drug court judge, and later to probation officers. Defendants also would have access to numerous services such as subsidized housing, transportation assistance and family counseling.
Potential participants would be rigorously screened to make sure they aren’t violent or sex offenders.
The program would be the first of its kind in Arizona. Other parts of the country with similar programs have seen decreases in re-arrests and prison recidivism among participants who complete the program.
In Brooklyn, New York, where District Attorney Charles J. Hynes innovated treatment instead of incarceration programs in 1990, rates of recidivism have fallen considerably among program graduates.
According to a 2007 report published on the Kings County District Attorney’s website, recidivism rates among program graduates were 50 percent lower than those of other drug-related defendants.
“From our perspective, that model has worked,” said Nicole Porter, state advocacy coordinator with The Sentencing Project. The group advocates for sentencing law reform and alternatives to incarceration.
Many states, Arizona included, have instituted get-tough-on-crime mandatory minimum sentencing laws. In addition, states have passed truth in sentencing laws that require defendants serve the majority of their sentences.
Porter said programs like the one in Brooklyn have given judges more freedom to determine sentences.
“It’s really about allowing judges to have more discretion,” Porter said.
She said the programs have proven cost effective in many areas as well. “In day-to-day costs, it tends to be cheaper than prison,” she said.
Cost-savings, in part, motivated LaWall to pursue federal funding to initiate the treatment alternative in Pima County.
“It would have an enormous impact on the cost of the state prison system,” LaWall said. The state now pays about $22,000 annually per inmate in Department of Corrections facilities.
The cost for each participant in the treatment program would be roughly $13,750.
If the county spends the entire $1.1 million grant on the anticipated 80 participants over the next three years, it would save about $660,000.
“We’re hoping that we can produce significant enough results to reapply for money (after the grant expires),” LaWall said. If the grant money isn’t available, LaWall said the county would seek money from other sources to continue.
LaWall said one possibility would be to show the Arizona Legislature the savings the program produced in an effort to procure state funding. The county attorney also could seek funding through the Pima County Board of Supervisors and its normal budgeting process.