By Joseph T. Kivlin Jr.
People would not be surprised to learn that our jails and prisons are overcrowded because of prejudice.
They would be surprised to learn, however, that the primary cause is not racial prejudice, although that may play a part. It is the attitude that those with drug or alcohol addictions are inferior beings who are unable to control their appetites.
That such people are frequently found among the poor fortifies a stereotype, a picture in the mind's eye, that the poor deserve their fate because they can't control their behavior. What is not widely admitted is that people in all other classes also suffer from addictions. Like Sam Johnson, they obtain treatment and recover, and they are not compelled to resort to crime to support their habit.
What researchers now know for certain is that addiction is a health problem, not a moral problem. It can be successfully treated like many other ailments. It is only necessary to observe a regular regimen, as with diabetes. Frequent meetings with groups of people in similar circumstances are essential, just as diet and insulin are mandatory for the diabetic. People sometimes lapse, but can resume their sobriety, once it is understood that lapsing is not failure.
Another widespread belief is that addicted people can't recover "until they're ready", or until they "hit bottom". Yet studies have shown that mandatory treatment also works. Otherwise the drug treatment courts would not have realized the tremendous success they've enjoyed nationwide.
Lawmakers, prompted by the beliefs (and prejudices) of their constituents, have tried to legislate out of existence this class of people they believe to be morally inferior. The approach is simple: lock them up and keep them out of sight.
Criminal laws designed in that way have many unintended consequences. Families lose the influence of a parent, usually male, and the strength of his presence. There's no more role model for his sons. The mother, because of her embarrassment, sometimes isolates herself from others and thereby loses the social support she now badly needs. The community's social service agencies have the added burden of providing for that family. And of course, it has lost the contributions the individual might have made if he were not imprisoned, for example, in his labor, intellect or other talents, and the sales or other taxes he might have paid.
The Alliance for Drug and Alcohol Management was organized about five years ago, with Sam's help, to deal with the problems of the addicted poor, people who have no way to pay for treatment. ADAM's mission is to be an advocate on their behalf.
Initially, ADAM sponsored a study of the Racine community, in order to obtain objective information about the condition of our addiction treatment needs and about the professional organizations which are supposed to provide treatment.
That study, reported to the community in September 2002, found that there is no continuum of care for the addicted poor. While service providers exist, they are almost inaccessible to a person resolved to reform his or her life, with no way to pay. That resolution is lost if help is not available promptly, resulting in individual returning to the self-help of alcohol or illegal drugs. Even when appropriate treatment is found, there is rarely effective follow-up support.
Among the report's conclusions and estimates, as of 2002, are the following: (1) There are about 600 addicted poor people in Racine; (2) One dollar spent on treatment results in a saving of between $4 and $7 in the costs of social services to the community; and (3) Treatment cost ranges from $1,800 to $6,800 per year, depending on nature of the treatment.
The drug court program, begun by Janet Reno in Miami, has spread across the country and is very successful. Madison and La Crosse both have such programs, and Racine's chief judge is investigating and supportive. People admitted to the program have committed non-violent crimes. They are required to attend court sessions weekly, and earn rewards or sanctions depending on their behavior. Even those who say they joined only in order to avoid jail, were so pleased with their progress, that they became enthusiastic supporters.
Kivlin brought his family to Racine over 50 years ago to take a job as an attorney at SC Johnson. After retirement in 1948, he practiced law, mostly in criminal defense. Based on the latter experience, and family addiction problems, he became an advocate for people in Racine who are unable to obtain treatment for their addictions. He organized a non-profit group having that mission, called the Alliance for Drug and Alcohol Management. He presently serves as Municipal Judge for the villages of Wind Point and North Bay.