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Graduating Drug-free


By her own account, State Rep. Renee Gill Pratt of New Orleans last month gave a fairly "routine" commencement speech at a school auditorium. Up to a point. She departed from her prepared remarks to speak publicly for the first time of her brother's suicide 15 years ago, which ended his addiction to cocaine.

Her personal remarks were entirely appropriate to the occasion. The 77 men and women assembled before her on May 17 were not your typical graduates. Ages 18 to 69, the members of this "Class of 2001" wore no caps and gowns. They were all non-violent offenders who had successfully completed a rigorous, one-year drug treatment program established by the Orleans Parish Drug Treatment Court. The diplomas they received hailed a break from an almost certain road to prison or death.

No media recorded the moment, but families and loved ones, we are told, looked on with pride. So too, no doubt, did the six Criminal Court judges who administer the local drug court and who might otherwise have sentenced the graduates to jail time. Some 200 people have graduated from New Orleans drug court during its four-year history. That is the largest program of its kind in Louisiana, and it has an impressive recidivism rate of only 12.2 percent.

Pratt began her address by citing noteworthy figures from history, such as Leonardo Da Vinci, "who did his best work when he was down and out, almost deaf and in debt." She let graduates know that the first step is always the hardest. And she talked about her brother's fatal addiction. "I was just sitting there and it came to me, the hurt that our family went through," she said later. "I never wanted other mothers and families to go through what my mother and family went through. ... We should give these people a chance because they are on a new path and they are trying to do the right thing."

We agree. We also should give effective drug treatment programs such as drug courts a larger role (alongside law enforcement) in the ongoing efforts to curb illegal narcotics.

A new report by the National Drug Intelligence Center of the U.S. Department of Justice shows crack and powdered cocaine to be the primary illegal drug threat in Louisiana. "The harmful effects of cocaine trafficking and abuse are seen in a growing number of treatment program admissions, prison populations, and high rates of violent crime," the report states.

Heroin has reached "high levels of abuse" in the metro area among two distinct groups -- inner-city drug abusers who use heroin to soften the depressive effects of crack, and individuals in their late teens and mid-twenties from predominantly upper middle-class suburban areas.

Locking up the problem won't make it go away. "Incarceration by itself is not the answer; you need treatment with it," says Eleanor Glapion, clinic director at the New Orleans Center for Addictive Disorders, a local state-run outpatient program that receives 1,000 drug users a month. Long-term treatment programs administered by drug court judges succeed where jail time alone has failed, according to a recent Columbia University study released during a conference of the National Association of Drug Professionals, held in New Orleans.

Drug court programs first started in 1989 and arrived in New Orleans four years ago. There are currently 539 people in the local program, served by 11 case managers. Treatment for each client costs roughly $3,500 and is paid for by the state Department of Health and Hospitals. Participants may appear before a drug court judge as often as twice a week and may be required to participate in treatment or counseling programs up to five times a week, depending on the severity of the addiction. They are responsible for paying $8 for each urine test administered as part of the program.

"The court uses the power of the criminal justice system to keep people tied to therapeutic treatment," explains Criminal Court Chief Judge Gerard Hansen. "The goal is to get people clean and sober and crime-free."

Unfortunately, the program's limitations are painfully obvious. Drug courts must turn away family members whose addicted loved ones do not qualify for the program because they have not been arrested. The most severe cases are referred to the detoxification center at Charity Hospital, the N.O. Center for Addictive Disorders and other state agencies, which are historically overwhelmed and under-funded.

This legislative session, Gov. Mike Foster and lawmakers have taken some key steps by repealing a number of draconian laws that established prison time for non-violent drug offenders. We hope all legislators will read the Justice Department's new drug assessment report for Louisiana ( and then dedicate more funds for drug courts and other drug treatment programs.

And before the regular session ends June 18, the Legislature should draft resolutions congratulating the drug-free graduates of Louisiana's drug courts -- the "other" class of 2001.-->

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