Rehab, not prison proves successful for some drug offenders, County says

PIMA COUNTY, AZ ( Tucson News Now) - Pima County leaders are touting the benefits of a program that keeps some drug offenders out of prison. It is part of the changing attitude towards non-violent drug offenses.  U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder recently announced he is expanding a federal effort to keep non-violent drug defendants from getting long prison terms.

The people behind the local program say Arizona's first "Drug Treatment Alternative to Prison" program or DTAP, is getting results, better than what they expected. A three-year grant to fund the program is up at the end of the month, and now the search is on for more funding to keep it going. One of the arguments for keeping, and expanding DTAP is that it costs less to put these sorts of offenders through a rehab program than it does to put them behind bars.

"Of course, it takes money to save money so we have to have the money to put into this program: $10,000 per participant to save $40,000," Amelia Cramer, the chief deputy Pima County attorney said. "It's going to cost Arizona taxpayers one way or the other."

According to a report conducted by an independent agency, Pima County spent at average of "approximately $10,000 to rehabilitate an individual DTAP participant who succeeds in the program, compared to a cost of more than $40,000 if that same individual had been incarcerated for the average sentence of two-and-a-half years," according to a news release sent by the county.

Michael Kennedy, 45 years old and a Tucson native says he has been to prison five times and started using drugs when he was 13 years old.

"People like me don't do what I do," Kennedy said of his subsequent recovery and graduation from the DTAP program. "People like me end up dead or in prison for the rest of their life."

Kennedy qualified for the DTAP program because he is a multiple-time offender, charged with a drug-related offense with no history of violent or sexual crimes. Kennedy says in the past, he would go to prison, get clean, then end up back to square one upon release.

"Then I get out," Kennedy said after saying he would use his time in prison to get off drugs. "I know that drugs is my problem so I get a job and I try to be a normal person, a productive person but yet I haven't dealt with what the problem is. The problem is me."

Kennedy said he started using drugs to feel better about himself. He says it started with weed, then coke and finally, heroin and meth. His addiction fueled his life of crime, he said. Kennedy said he stole for drugs and money.

"I should be dead, or I should be in prison for the rest of my life," Kennedy said. "And I'm not. Thank you God, thank you."

After years of living a life of crime, Kennedy says he is thankful for "normal." He says he has a job at a local car wash, pays taxes and has been sober for two years, seventeen days and counting.

The program is designed to reduce drug addiction and drug-related crime in Pima County. Cramer says going into the grant nearly three years ago, they anticipated a 40-percent success rate. The program turned out to be successful 70 to 75-percent of the time, Cramer said.

The grant runs out at the end of the month but will continue in a smaller capacity until the county finds out whether it will be eligible for more funding either from the state or federal government.

Pima County was funded tor three years through one of 28 grants awarded nationwide by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and the U.S. Department of Justice.

Copyright 2013 Tucson News Now. All rights reserved.