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Start of Main Content

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

Drugs, Alcohol Abuse, and Crime:
A State and Local Perspective

Moderator:
Richard Stalder, Secretary
Louisiana Department of
Public Safety and Corrections
Baton Rouge, Louisiana

Panelists:
Lewis Gallant, Director
Virginia Office of Substance Abuse Services
Richmond, Virginia

Chris Martin, Sergeant
Sacramento County Sheriff's Department
Sacramento, California

Thomas Merrigan, First Justice
Orange District Court
Orange, Massachusetts

Jeff Griffin, Mayor
Reno, Nevada

Summary of Proceedings

A widespread consensus is developing on the need for comprehensive and multi-disciplinary approaches to the problems of substance-abusing inmates. At least half of adults arrested test positive for drugs at the time of arrest, said moderator Richard Stalder of the Louisiana Department of Public Safety and Corrections, and often arrestees have related substance abuse or mental health problems.

We must do more than arrest, convict, and lock up these individuals if they are to return successfully to their communities, functioning as productive citizens, said Justice Thomas Merrigan of Orange, Massachusetts. The magnitude of the problems and the skills required to address these problems require responses that are best provided by multiple organizations/systems working together.

"We are all here because we know that incarceration by itself just doesn't work," said Reno, Nevada, Mayor Jeff Griffin. The answer lies in having multiple options available, including incarceration, treatment, testing, sanctions, aftercare, and follow-up, and in using the particular cluster of options that are appropriate to the needs and circumstances of each individual.

Developing a collaborative approach to prevention, diagnosis, substance abuse treatment, and follow-up is not an easy task. Traditionally, these services have been seen as the responsibility of others, primarily the public health, mental health, and drug and alcohol treatment service systems. In some cases, getting criminal justice practitioners engaged in these issues is challenging. However, Merrigan said, success will be found in settings in which all agencies collaborate to define and implement short- and long-term solutions and the role of each partner is clearly defined.

One of the keys to successful collaboration is for the organizations and systems involved to understand and be sensitive to the needs of the other collaborating partners. In particular, Lewis Gallant of Virginia's Office of Substance Abuse Services noted that public health professionals should be sensitive to the needs of the public safety system, especially if diagnosis, treatment, and follow-up services need to take place while an individual is involved in the criminal justice system. "We have to retool to ensure that we don't bump into each other," he said.

An effective time to identify and address substance abuse problems is when the individual is moving through the court systems. For example, drug courts, which divert offenders from the prison system into appropriate treatment, have been tremendously successful nationwide, Merrigan noted. Collaborative community services also must continue after offenders are released to ensure successful treatment over the long run, said Griffin.

Offering a range of services in different settings is critical to an effective continuum of care. However, these services alone will not deal effectively with the problem, said Chris Martin from the Sacramento County Sheriff's Department. With more individuals coming into the justice system with drug- and alcohol-related problems, it is very easy for practitioners to become overwhelmed. The most effective way to reduce the numbers coming into the system, said Martin, is to prevent the problem from occurring in the first place, and resources need to be made available to implement prevention programs that work.

The panelists agreed that these resources must come from a combination of federal, state, and local sources. However, adequate resources will be allocated only when research-based evidence is presented to policymakers demonstrating crime reduction and reduced recidivism rates directly tied to the services delivered.

The work of reducing the related problems of substance abuse and criminal activity requires both traditional and nontraditional cross-agency approaches. Working in new ways and in collaboration with others should not, however, be viewed as "being soft on crime," said Martin, but as a way to make communities safer and to provide needed services.


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Last Updated: March 4, 2002



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