Tough on Drugs

Prisons are filled with users who pick jail over probation and treatment. Welcome to Round 42 of the war on drugs.

Attorney Marc Carter had a client, 18 years old. A first-time offender, she'd been smoking crack cocaine since she was 14. She was the mother of a young child. Everyone involved in the case agreed that what she needed was rehabilitation, Carter says, and the court gave her an offer of drug treatment and probation. Her alternative was six months in county jail, which would mean 90 days.

"You ask a crackhead what do you want to do: 90 days in the county or do you want to go through three years of treatment and probation?" he says, smiling ruefully. She turned them down and did the time.

Do the time in jail or prison, get it over with, and be out on the streets again with no strings attached, no accounting to anyone. Lawyers throughout the Harris County courthouse say most addicts think this is a better deal than being "on paper," doing urine tests for dope month after month stretching into years, people looking over their shoulders, messing in their business, waiting for them to trip up again and send them back to the courthouse where the punishment will be even worse if they get "revoked."

Judge Jan Krocker has a good program to send drug offenders to, if she can just get them to go.
Deron Neblett
Judge Jan Krocker has a good program to send drug offenders to, if she can just get them to go.

So they go to prison, get out, do the drugs again, till they're caught again. If the drug habit escalates, they spend a lot of money on it, maybe steal from other people, hurt other people to get the money they need for the drug habit for which they never got treatment. They get caught again, go to jail again, get out and start up the drugs, the stealing and the hurting again.

It is a ruinous cycle of complete frustration to Judge Jan Krocker of the 184th District Court, who says: "There's a general feeling out there that the courts aren't rehabilitating anyone on drugs, and that's probably true. The system has not been set up to handle this."

The system is set up to put offenders in jail or prison. The system also is set up to distribute a certain amount of grace, that dispensation of a second chance that is never earned, only given. Grace and rehabilitation are supposed to be enlightened and welcomed. Recipients are not supposed to thumb their noses at the offer.

"My client, initially she wanted probation," Carter says. "But she thought that was getting out today and not having to deal with all her problems."

His clients who want drug treatment and probation are those who've hit rock bottom, who're on their third felony drug arrest, Carter says. Of course, by then probation generally gets filed under the heading of wishful thinking.

A judge can sentence someone to a substance abuse felony punishment facility, shortened to the clumsy acronym SAFPF, which is pronounced "safe-pee" -- either an acknowledgement that it's impossible to say "safe-pfff" or an allusion to the frequent urinalysis people in the program must undergo. Or both.

SAFPF reportedly has a high success rate. Some 70 percent of people sent its way make it through and remain off drugs afterward, according to Holli Rich, SAFPF coordinator, who says they track people for up to five years after release. But it's not an easy tour of duty.

A judge amends the conditions of probation to include the drug treatment plan. After being sentenced to a SAFPF, an offender is put on a waiting list and may wait two months or more before even getting help. The wait is not done at home, but in jail. Once in the program, it will be another nine to 12 months before an enrollee graduates. The program is not an outpatient one; participants are incarcerated in a correctional facility. Then it's on to a halfway house for 90 days, followed by aftercare for the next two years.

If there is a mess-up anywhere along the way, the judge can order the person back to court, revoke probation and sentence the offender to prison. A participant can accumulate violations for such things as stealing, not participating in group discussions, or refusing to get out of bed. Major violations are such things as assault and sexual misconduct. Members of the counseling team will meet with someone who's going south, but if they can't turn him around, Rich says, that's reported back to the court. If probation is revoked, no credit is given for days and months already spent in the program. So 15 to 18 months of your life are already gone and you have to start all over with a prison sentence.

"Being eligible for parole doesn't mean being a good risk for parole," says defense attorney Eric Hagstette. "I think a lot of people who recognize that about themselves don't think they can make probation work."

Dial back to another decade when not all of Harris County's judges were elected on strong conservative and Republican platforms. A probationer could fail a drug test and get another chance. It's a whole different atmosphere these days.

"It's become very tough," Hagstette says. "Lots of judges, on technical violations, will revoke. There's closer to a zero tolerance. A lot of us try to encourage drug treatment. Some people just know themselves, know they'll fail and know they'll get slam-dunked if they do."

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