New defense for drug crime offense

by Michael Reneau
Posted 9/27/13, 03:45 pm

A few months ago, a midwestern soccer mom checked into the Novus Medical Detox Center near Tampa, Fla. Married to a successful businessman, she mothered two boys and sang in the church choir. More than a year earlier, she had back surgery and got hooked on the high-power painkillers prescribed to her. Once the prescription ran out, she went to other doctors and clinics for refills. Eventually, her addiction drove her to alcoholism and harder drugs, before she turned to the detox center.

And she’s not alone: Last year, 76 percent of the patients at the facility developed addictions from prescription medications, said Kent Runyon, Novus’ executive director.

With the terrifying power of pain medication to entrap even soccer moms, more and more states—and even federal courts—are now turning low-risk drug addicts away from prison and toward rehab centers like Novus. Even conservative politicians are now advocating for criminal justice reform normally the purview of Democrats. 

Craig DeRoche, president of Chuck Colson’s Justice Fellowship, said more conservatives are latching onto drug courts and rehab plans as a way to provide more accountability to low-risk addicts—non-violent offenders and those dealing drugs to feed their own habits.

“Incarceration doesn’t hold people accountable, it just drives up expenses and has bad outcomes,” DeRoche said.

In 2012, the Republican-dominated Georgia legislature passed a bill implementing statewide drug courts—building off similar courts already in place at several local levels—that send low-risk drug addicts to rehab programs instead of jail. Georgia’s mushrooming prison population, which doubled since 1991 to 56,000 inmates, and the annual cost increases, from $492 million to more than $1 billion, provided the impetus for the reforms. Meanwhile, recidivism rates held steady at 30 percent.

Earlier this year, Republican Gov. Nathan Deal signed another bill that gives state judges more discretion when sentencing drug offenders, avoiding mandatory minimum sentences Georgia implemented years ago. 

“When I first became governor I was concerned about something that I was told Republicans shouldn’t really be concerned about and that was the fact that we were the 10th largest state in population but that we had the fourth largest prison population,” Deal said when he signed the bill.

A spokesperson for Georgia’s court system said new data on recidivism, drug offenders, and the fiscal impact of the reforms won’t be available until later this year.

Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, also a Republican, recently signed similar reforms that grant early prison releases to drug offenders who complete rehabilitation programs. 

DeRoche, a former alcoholic who went through rehab after a term as a Michigan state representative, said Pennsylvania, Michigan, Oklahoma, and Ohio have all implemented similar reforms. Now a congressional committee is examining over-criminalization of several crimes, including drug offenses. 

“What we find in the secular world and detox agencies, is that their perspectives often align quite well [with Justice Fellowship’s],” DeRoche said. “They may not be believers or Christians, but they see the wisdom.”

Michael Reneau

Michael Reneau is WORLD’s deputy editor based in East Tennessee. Follow Michael on Twitter @MichaelReneau.

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