Alternative to prison for drug offenders

Published: Oct. 31, 2011 at 9:05 PM MST|Updated: Nov. 11, 2015 at 4:39 PM MST
Email This Link
Share on Pinterest
Share on LinkedIn

For Michael Kennedy it was a stark choice.

Clean up or go to prison for the rest of his life.

He's been clean for 60 days now.

"I'm taking it one day at a time," he says.

His drug of choice, meth.

"I'm an addict and everyday I have to remember I'm an addict and always will be an addict," he says.

The 43 year old Kennedy has been in prison five times, arrested more than 20 times, shot twice and beaten within an inch of his life.

If he didn't spend the rest of his life in prison, he probably wouldn't last much longer on the outside.

"I never carried a gun before and I started carrying a gun," Kennedy says.

But instead of prison, he's living in an intensive drug treatment facility, one of twenty drug offenders who have been arrested numerous times but are not behind bars.

Thanks to a program started by the Pima County Attorney's office and financed by the US government as an "alternative to prison".

This program is unique because it's run by prosecutors. The same people who spend their days sending people to prison are now trying to keep people out of prison.

That's turning some heads but they say it's not going "soft".

"These people go through three years of intensive work on themselves," says Amelia Craig Cramer, a prosecutor who is director of the program.

She's so excited about the possibilities that she can't stop talking about it.

"This is the favorite part of my job," she says.

Going through this program is more difficult she believes that going to prison.

"They have to constantly step up to the plate, look for a job, upgrade their education to get a better job, go to counseling with their families, show up court, they have to take responsibility," Cramer says.

The program of intensive counseling, which lasts four hours a day for 90 days, is an alternative to the programs which clean up and then let go.

"They will be constantly monitored," she says.

Yet the program is a much cheaper alternative to prison.

The cost is about 50 cents on the dollar as compared to incarceration.

Of the 20 people on the program so far, only two have failed.

Pima County gets it second check from Uncle Sam this week to move the program into its second year, a check for $315,000.

After next year, the cost will be passed on to the state which may take some convincing, which Cramer says she's willing to lobby for.

She'll tell the lawmakers "you'll save 50 cents on the dollar and you'll get better results."

Whether that's true will rely in some part on people like Kennedy.

"This is my last chance," he says. "I'm surprised I got this."

For county prosecutors, this may be their only chance.