The Case for Better Alternatives

Monday, June 25th, 2012

girl in prisonI have long advocated for effective, evidence-based treatment as an alternative to incarceration.  The U.S. prison population remains the largest in the world—85 percent of which suffers from addiction, has a history of substance abuse, or faces drug-related charges.  We’ve seen it over and over again: inmates struggling with addiction are doomed to repeat the same crimes (or worse) if they do not receive the help they need.  Those who do receive life-saving treatment are able to chart a new course as productive members of their communities.

For this reason, I am a strong believer in halfway houses.   They provide the treatment and structured living environment many drug offenders need to get their lives back on track.  These facilities ensure that individuals who have come through the criminal justice system will successfully reenter society.  They benefit not only the person in need of treatment, but society as a whole—for they reduce the tremendous financial burden of addiction on our healthcare and law enforcement systems.

With this in mind, I applaud politicians like New Jersey Governor Chris Christie who have recognized the need to invest in halfway houses and other treatment programs versus prisons.  As I’ve written in the past, Governor Christie has shown tremendous vision.  He understands that addiction is a chronic, recurring condition for which individuals need medical attention, not simply jail time.

That being said, a treatment program is only viable as an alternative to incarceration if it lives up to its promise.  This means delivering care in a safe, supportive environment, utilizing the latest evidence-based practices.  Unfortunately, after reading The New York Times’ powerful three-part exposé on halfway houses in New Jersey, it appears that Governor Christie has his work cut out for him.

According to The Times series, the main area of concern with New Jersey’s system is the co-housing of violent and nonviolent offenders.  Clients and staff members report that the facilities now lodge a growing number of inmates convicted of violent crimes.  Not surprisingly, the consequences have been tragic.  Serious altercations have occurred, and some clients have gone so far as to say they felt safer in jail.  In addition, security in these halfway houses has proven problematic.  According to The Times’ analysis, since 2005, over 5,000 inmates have escaped, often returning to society to commit crimes—many of which are worse crimes than those they originally committed.

These findings are unsettling to say the least, but I’m grateful that Governor Christie has launched an investigation in response.  To his credit, Christie called The Times’ series “disturbing” and suggestive of “lax oversight and accountability.”  “We have an obligation to ensure the community placements program is effectively and safely operating,” he said.  I couldn’t agree more.  I’m confident that Christie’s efforts to increase monitoring will identify any and all shortcomings in New Jersey’s halfway house system.

If the investigation finds that the reports are true, a number of measures should be taken.  The halfway houses must increase security measures, improve working and living conditions, and hire and train staff who are armed with evidence-based tools.  In addition, they need to establish and conduct in-depth assessments for each and every inmate to prevent the co-housing of violent and non-violent offenders.  While violent drug offenders would benefit from effective treatment as well, they should not be treated under conditions that put others in harm’s way.

We must remember that treatment facilities—whether halfway houses or programs like ours at Phoenix House—require significant resources.  Without the proper infrastructure, they cannot be celebrated as alternatives to incarceration; in fact, the environment they provide may be no more therapeutic than jail.  Failure to overhaul ineffective programs is to commit a great injustice to the members of our communities struggling with addiction—our kids, parents, siblings, friends, colleagues, and neighbors.  They deserve nothing less than the highest standard of care in order to turn their lives around.

Howard P. Meitiner
President and CEO
Phoenix House

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