Delaware Public Media

Drug treatment instead of prison could strain rehab programs

Jun 22, 2010

“I just see miracles all the time,” Dagsboro psychotherapist Lee Dogoloff says about his work with drug offenders in rehabilitation. “Not everybody makes it, but more make it than don’t make it.”

If the Delaware legislature passes a bill giving judges more discretion in drug sentencing, more offenders could wind up in court-ordered drug treatment rather than in a prison cell. That prospect shines a light on Delaware’s drug treatment programs—their effectiveness, their funding, and their ability to handle an increased caseload. And it reopens the issue of prison vs. treatment for drug offenders.

“There’s not much evidence that long sentences make a big difference,” Dogoloff said.  “You have to have faith and confidence in your judges to do the right thing that’s appropriate to the crime and the facts that surround the crime.”

Dogoloff has spent decades formulating policy on these issues, as White House drug czar under President Jimmy Carter, then as a member of President George H. W. Bush’s Drug Advisory Council, and later, in Delaware, as board vice chair and clinical consultant to The Way Home, a Georgetown-based prison transition program.

While the state spends about $30,000 a year to keep an offender in prison, he notes, The Way Home spends about $5,000 a year on an array of services to keep an ex-offender out of prison according to a study conducted by University of Delaware's Health Services Policy Research Group.

Only about 10 percent of new entrants in The Way Home land back in jail, compared with an overall recidivism rate of 21 percent for new entrants into the Delaware Department of Corrections.

Supporters of H.B. 443, which eliminates mandatory sentencing for minor drug offenses and provides judges more discretion in their sentencing, say the proposed reforms have tremendous financial and social benefits.

“I am really in favor of the concept of treatment versus jail,” said Barbara Del Mastro, executive director of The Way Home. “Addiction is a disease and requires treatment. . . . In my opinion, good and structured treatment programs are a good first attempt.”

But while H.B. 443 could funnel more drug users into treatment, this year’s budget does not provide increased funding for treatment programs.

“I don’t believe there are current resources available” to put more offenders into treatment, Dogoloff said.

“We are fighting for our lives in terms of funding,” he said. “We don’t know if we’re going to get anything from the state.”

Far from expanding its services, the nonprofit will be striving to keep its doors open.

“It seems to me that if you’re going to help a person that has an option of treatment or rehab, it’s incumbent on you to provide rehab resources,” Dogoloff said.

“We have to spend more money on treatment,” said Representative Dennis P. Williams (D-Wilmington North). I know it costs a lot of money, but sometimes spending money saves you your economy.”

“We need increase our resources for drug treatment,” said  Joanna Champney, Executive Director of Stand Up for What’s Right and Just (SURJ). But at Legislative Hall, “budget neutral is kind of the buzz term right now.”

Representative Tom Kovach (R-Brandywine North) sees funding as a matter of priorities.

“It will be a question of ‘Where you want you money going?’ Do you want your money going to house, feed, cloth and shelter inmates?  Or do you want that money going toward rehabilitation?” Rep. Kovach said.

But legislators realize it is a question that will need to be addressed.

“Absolutely. Watch out in 2011. A bill might be coming,” Rep. Williams said.