Cost cutting could end a successful program to rehabilitate drug addicts

From the Oregonian, April 2 2009

The man with extraordinarily sad eyes stands before the judge for his twice-a-month check-in.

He once held an executive job, he says, but spent an astonishing $500,000 he’d amassed over his career on crack cocaine.

“I didn’t have a drug problem until I was 54, when my wife passed away,” the man says. “And then I went insane.”

He was arrested for cocaine possession, and landed in 2007 in STOP court, a drug rehabilitation program that encourages addicts in Multnomah County to come clean with the promise of dismissing felony criminal charges if they do. Addicts enter the program voluntarily.

“Don’t give up on me,” the man tells Judge Christopher Marshall last month, admitting he relapsed since he last saw the judge two weeks ago. The man says he immediately checked himself into a private residential drug treatment program for the umpteenth time but is having trouble finding a program that works for him.

The judge says he’s not about to give up. As encouragement, Marshall reminds the man of how far he’s come from the days when he first showed up in the courtroom an unhealthy 50 pounds lighter, in a wheelchair.

The STOP court — Sanction Treatment Opportunity Progress — is the second oldest in the nation behind a program in Dade County, Fla. Now there are more than 1,900 drug courts across the country, and Multnomah County’s program has been studied as a model by visitors from around the globe.

But news that $1.4 million in annual funding from the state and county could disappear has sent waves of worry across the court’s supporters, including prosecutors, defense attorneys, drug treatment counselors and participants. The end of that money would mean the end of the program.

The county Department of Community Justice, which pays as much as 80 percent of drug treatment costs for court participants, has recommended that county Chairman Ted Wheeler and ultimately county commissioners cut the program to fill an expected $45 million budget gap over the next two years.

Wheeler is scheduled to release his budget recommendations April 23 to commissioners, who will make the final decision by July 1.

But no one — not even the department that has recommended the cut — says it makes long-term economic sense. A 10-year study found that STOP court saves taxpayers $7.9 million a year, in costs ranging from housing drug addicts in jail or prison to those borne by victims of crime, such as identity theft and burglaries.

“We had to make a lot of hard choices; this is a good program, and we’re not happy about submitting this choice to the chair,” said Jason Ziedenberg, spokesman for the Department of Community Justice.

Ziedenberg said his department recommended the cut in favor of keeping funding for programs that supervise high-risk sex offenders and other violent felons recently released from prison. And if county commissioners decide to save the court, that will mean slashing money somewhere else, perhaps cutting programs that come to the aid of the mentally ill or closing more jail beds.

If the court shuts down, supporters say, society also will bear harder-to-measure costs, including more drug overdoses, babies born to drug-addicted parents and child-welfare cases.

The mood was celebratory at a ceremony two weeks ago to recognize 10 of the court’s most recent graduates. Dozens of onlookers enthusiastically applauded the grinning graduates for getting clean and sticking with drug treatment for at least one year.

Judge Marshall, who participants say has a keen ability to see through lies and denials, noted that this batch of graduates overcame addictions to marijuana, heroin, meth, cocaine, prescription medications and alcohol. Now they are enrolled in school or holding down jobs.

But a foreboding that there may not be many more graduations overshadowed the celebration. Speakers told them that part of giving back was letting county commissioners know what the program has meant to them.

Here are three graduates who say they’re thankful for the program:

Back from the brink

Jacob Kierstead knew he had a problem: His body craved heroin every day. And when his money ran thin and he couldn’t afford it, he couldn’t sleep, he’d shiver, he’d shake, he’d vomit.

The former University of Oregon student Googled for inpatient drug treatment, but quickly discovered he couldn’t afford it.

“Everything was like, ‘For $20,000, come stay here.’ If I had $20,000, I wouldn’t have a problem,” said Kierstead, 27, noting he would have used the money to buy more drugs.

So Kierstead’s July 2005 arrest for possessing heroin was the best thing for him, although he didn’t know it then. The program twice gave him a coveted bed in an inpatient drug treatment program, when he needed it most during his grueling, nearly four-year struggle to stay clean.

“I definitely spent my fair share of seven days in jail or three days in jail for being dirty,” said Kierstead, describing what the judge ordered when random urine screenings showed he was using again.

The program was there for Kierstead when he seriously injured his ankle and his knee as he tumbled out of a UPS truck he’d been loading with packages as it was moving away in 2007. A doctor prescribed Vicodin for the pain, and he spiraled back into addiction after coming within a month of graduation.

“I was ready to punch my ticket and say goodbye to everyone,” said Kierstead, who said he contemplated suicide because he thought he’d never get better.

Kierstead said that without the court he would have cycled through the jail again and again.

“I would have gone to jail, gotten out, probably have stayed clean for like a month, started using and gone back to jail,” Kierstead said.

At graduation last month, a beaming Kierstead declared that he was overcome with emotion.

“I can’t say there has been a prouder moment in my life being able to stand here in front of you alive,” Kierstead said.

He starts a new job next month. And Kierstead — who as a boy sneaked out of his bedroom at night to secretly watch his dad play computer games — plans to go back to college to follow his dream: earning a degree in computer science.

Newly single, clean

Renata Ibabao, 33, was arrested in June 2007 for forging a prescription to double the amount of oxycodone pills her doctor had ordered. Like many graduates, she says that day turned out to be a blessing.

Ibabao, then a stay-at-home mom, felt trapped in a marriage with a man she said beat her.

“I remember going to soccer games wearing makeup to hide my bruises,” said Ibabao, who has 7- and 12-year-old boys.

It was too easy, she said, to make up ailments to get doctors to give her medication for pain.

“Self-medicating was the only thing I thought I could do at the time,” Ibabao said.

After her arrest, Ibabao entered the program and, motivated to avoid a felony conviction and build a better future for herself and her boys, sailed through in the minimum 12 months that’s required. She divorced her husband — becoming the first in her extended family to split with a spouse. She moved in with her parents and started working again as a caregiver. She plans to enroll at a community college to live her dream: working as a drug and alcohol counselor who specializes in helping victims of domestic violence.

Moments after graduation, her dark hair swept elegantly in a clip, Ibabao said she hasn’t told her boys about her drug use. But one day she will. She hopes her story will help others realize that drug addicts come from all walks of life.

Raising her kids clean

Teresa Dickinson’s parents let her smoke her first joint of marijuana when she was 12.

“I learned how to roll it up, and I smoked it with them,” said Dickinson, who’d grown up watching both her parents use drugs. “They felt like it was better for me to do it with them than out on the streets.”

When she was 25, she started selling crack cocaine to make a living. Then she started using herself. And that started her on a roller coaster of on- and off-again drug and alcohol use:

“On” after her mother died of a stroke, which Dickinson believes was brought on by an aneurysm from drug use. “Off” when she got herself together enough to drive to detox. “On” when she again started hanging around the wrong crowd.

She’s kicked her addictions long enough to become a drug and alcohol outreach worker, who helped recovery addicts put their lives back together. But at a low point a few years later, Dickinson isn’t proud to admit, she ended up selling drugs to some of the same people she’d tried to help.

At the time of her arrest in August 2007, Dickinson said she wasn’t using crack cocaine, but she was drinking. And hanging around with the wrong people — one of whom she says left behind a rock of cocaine in her car, leading police to arrest her. She also had scales, baggies and a years-old can of cocaine residue in her car.

Now 45, a teary-eyed Dickinson thanked counselors and the court at last month’s graduation. Dickinson said the past year in the program helped her leave behind a life of danger and focus on what she really wanted out of life: quality time with her partner of two years and the four girls they’re raising, ages 4 to 11.

She shudders to think she could have been robbed while selling dope on the streets, or fallen victim to a home-invasion robbery targeting her drug supply.

“I could be dead,” she told the crowd. “… This is my first offense, and it’s going to be my last.”

    By the numbers

    340 – Number of participants now in STOP court

    1991 – Year STOP court began

    12 months – Minimum amount of time a participant must spend in the program

    $12,218 – Amount saved per participant (mostly in jail, prison and costs to victims) over five years, according to a 2007 study

    30 percent – Participants in the program were 30 percent less likely to be rearrested within five years, when compared with offenders who hadn’t entered the program

    3,300 – Number of Portland-area addicts a year who would no longer get help through publicly funded treatment spots if the proposed cuts go through

    $64 million – Amount President Barack Obama approved last month for drug court programs across the nation, up for grabs through grant applications.

    Sources: Sanction Treatment Opportunity Progress court staff, Multnomah County, national 2007 study “The Impact of a Mature Drug Court over 10 years of Operation.”

    Program eligibility

    Defendants must have been arrested for a nonviolent drug crime, such as drug possession or forging prescriptions to get drugs.

    They also must plead guilty or no contest, with the understanding that their cases will be dismissed if they graduate. That means taking random urine tests, going to drug treatment, and getting a job or enrolling in school. Most participants get their treatment through InAct, a program run by Volunteers of America.

    Those who fail to comply are convicted.