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National Assembly: Drugs, Alcohol Abuse,
and the Criminal Offender
Tuesday, December 7, 1999

Keynote Addresses

Donald Vereen, Jr., Deputy Director
Office of National Drug Control Policy
Washington, D.C.

Laurie Robinson, Assistant Attorney General
Office of Justice Programs
U.S. Department of Justice
Washington, D.C.

Nelba Chavez, Administrator
Substance Abuse and Mental Health
Services Administration
U.S. Department of Health and Human Services
Washington, D.C.

Summary of Proceedings

Donald Vereen, Jr.
Deputy Director, Office of National Drug Control Policy

The main goal of the National Assembly was to seek consensus on collaborative policies that link treatment and justice systems to guide actions after the Assembly, Donald Vereen, Jr. told participants. "These multi-disciplinary, systemic policies, not merely programs, must become the focus of our work," he said.

The specific objectives around which the Assembly needs to build consensus are:

  • To understand the criminal and juvenile justice systems—working in concert with other service systems—as a series of opportunities for intervention with drug- and alcohol-disordered offenders;
  • To prevent entry into the criminal/juvenile justice system for those who can be diverted safely to community social service systems.
  • To limit penetration into the criminal/juvenile justice system for adult and juvenile nonviolent offenders through community justice interventions in concert with other social service systems.
  • To intervene with those who must be incarcerated or securely confined, through appropriate treatment and supervision, both during and after the period of confinement.

Laurie Robinson
Assistant Attorney General, U.S. Department of Justice

If we are going to break the cycle of substance abuse and crime, the mix of people represented at the Assembly is critical, Laurie Robinson said. "Unless all of us are working together across disciplines, we are not going to have an impact, we are not going to be effective in adopting strategies that actually can change behavior of substance-abusing adult and juvenile offenders." We need to get away from "our old stove-pipe thinking," and look at these problems comprehensively, from the standpoint of broad public needs.

Collectively we need to recognize that both enforcement and sanctions and prevention and treatment are essential, she said. It doesn't have to be an "either/or debate." The vast majority of people in the criminal justice system have a substance abuse problem. Without a comprehensive, collaborative approach to ensure both a continuum of care and accountability, these offenders will continue the cycle of drug use and crime.

A range of intensive treatment and comprehensive aftercare support services is needed. Such services might include mental health counseling, drug treatment, employment training, education, parenting help, and whatever else it takes to help offenders make it through reentry. "As human beings we are most comfortable operating in our own, sometimes narrow, spheres, but it is critical that we do this bridging if we are going to address this complex problem successfully," Robinson said.

Robinson challenged the Assembly to think creatively about ways to foster collaborations and to develop comprehensive strategies for dealing with substance-abusing offenders drawing on the wealth of innovative state and local programs, as well as on the research on what works. It would be great, she said, if the criminal justice system were to:

  • Share offender assessments on substance abuse from one stage of the criminal justice system to the next—as when a person is in the hospital and their medical chart is passed along the way—rather than start over with a new assessment at every stage.
  • Think about interventions as they affect the whole family, particularly when dealing with children and with women offenders who have substance abuse problems and are the caretakers of minor children.

In considering cost-effectiveness, Robinson noted that we spend $166 billion annually in the United States on health care, criminal justice, and other costs resulting from substance abuse. "The bottom line in Washington is money. Common sense says it would be a wiser investment to focus more of our dollars on treatment when we know for a fact that it can reduce drug use and crime."

Nelba Chavez, Ph.D.
Administrator, Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration,
U.S. Department of Health and Human Services

An "undeniable overlap" exists between issues of justice and issues of health, Nelba Chavez noted. Nearly 75 percent of adult probationers reported using illegal drugs at some point during their lives; almost 45 percent reported illicit drug use during the previous year; and almost 30 percent indicated they used illicit drugs during the previous month, she said, citing the December 1999 National Household Survey. In addition, the rate of serious mental illness for prisoners is almost six times that of the general population.

We need to find effective collaborative strategies that make substance abuse and other health services a central part of a "rational" justice system. We need to deal with the frustrations and illnesses that result in violence and to help the victims of that violence, she said.

The country must invest resources in reaching adults, adolescents, and children who need substance abuse prevention and treatment services before they become part of the criminal justice system, using community mental health programs, antidrug services, and other support systems. Effective services must be comprehensive, gender specific, culturally relevant, and age-appropriate.

Chavez called for a "contract" between the health systems—dealing with primary care, substance abuse, and mental health—and the justice system, in which providers step outside their individual disciplines and develop a multidisciplinary philosophy with a multicultural approach. To do so, it will be necessary to build on the various types of expertise represented at the Assembly.


Last Updated: March 4, 2002

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