After I wrote an article on current legislation related to Maine’s addiction epidemic, the question was posed: What should be done?
I was quite sure I knew where to begin. I was going to open with a lofty discussion about paradigm theory, about this being a campaign with many fronts, and about recidivism rates.
I even had a fancy sentence: Recidivism rates are evidence that our corrections system, built on an archaic punitive framework, fails on its part in keeping communities safe; recidivism rates represent taxpayer dollars down the drain.
But then I called Kennebec County Sheriff Randall Liberty to ask him more about his Criminogenic Addiction Recovery Academy (CARA) program. Participants of the collaborative program are segregated from the main population of the jail for five weeks of structured programming that includes substance abuse and mental health treatment, education regarding criminal thinking, work readiness preparation, parenting skills training, community service, and more.
Loftiness flew out the window, quickly replaced by simplicity.
What can the Legislature or the governor do right now to address this epidemic? For starters, how about funding and expanding existing programs that work?
Shockingly, Liberty reports that he is currently running the program without funding. After losing state funding, he cut five positions to keep the program intact, which helps maintain the 14 percent recidivism rate — measured over a period of three years — for Kennebec County Jail participants.
A judicial branch legislative report states 17 percent of Maine drug court participants were rearrested in a 12-month period compared with 33 percent for a comparison group of adult offenders.
There’s this fancy policy catchphrase “evidence-based practices,” which refers to practices that have been proven to achieve desired outcomes. The point of identifying such practices is to recreate them or some modified version of them wherever these practices may apply. The phrase comes up twice in a United Nations Commission on Narcotic Drugs resolution introduced earlier this month.
The resolution was introduced by the United States, represented by Michael Botticelli, director of national drug control policy. Sounding just like Liberty, Botticelli states, “A global consensus is emerging that no nation can solve its drug problem by simply arresting and incarcerating those affected by a substance abuse disorder.” The resolution talks about addicts serving extended sentences “but not receiving evidence-based treatment or other needed health services.”
Liberty’s CARA program is an evidenced-based laboratory in and of itself. Back to recidivism rates, CARA, as the only program of its kind in the state, serves two sets of county inmates: inmates from KCJ proper and inmates sent from other county facilities. Both participate in the alternative incarceration program.
However, only KCJ inmates are able to participate in the six-week collaborative Kennebec Regional Reentry Program. (KeRRP) This transitional program supports community re-entry by following participants for six weeks after leaving jail. Services provided include intensive outpatient substance abuse treatment, case management, limited and targeted financial support, housing case management, mentoring, job search support and others.
Liberty credits KeRRP with helping keep his jail’s recidivism rate low as compared to the rates for participants from other jails who cannot access KeRRP.
His evidence-based conclusion is in line with another Office of National Drug Control Policy document from 1999, which concludes recommending alternative imprisonment programs, treatment and transitional programs.
“The end result will be fewer addicts and drug users, less demand for drugs, less drug trafficking, less drug-related crime and violence, safer communities and fewer people behind bars,” it states.
The legislature and the governor could familiarize themselves with other visionaries leading this paradigm shift, like Father Gregory Boyle, founder of Homeboy Industries of Los Angeles, California.
Father Greg started the program on a tiny scale in 1988. He and his parish, Delores Mission Church wanted to do something about gang-related youth. What began as a small jobs program is now a large, independent nonprofit.
It offers training, job skills and job connections to people formerly in gangs or jail.
Father Greg is not only lowering crime and criminal recidivism, but he is a community activist, a provider of social services, an educator, a job creator, and now an international leader in new approaches to society’s problems. The Global Homeboys Network seeks to share methodologies — and explore applications for its evidence-based practices — around the nation and the world.
Perhaps the Legislature could send a small delegation, possibly including Liberty as part of funding his programming, to the Global Homeboys Network Gathering in August in Los Angeles. Maybe Maine could have a similar program that is agricultural- or construction-based, and geared toward troubled youth and those experiencing addiction.
In light of Father Greg’s work, the possibilities seem endless.
Why do programs like Homeboys and CARA work? For the same reason traditional incarceration fails: merely requiring a forfeiture of personal freedom in response to criminal behavior does not actually address the root causes of criminal behavior.
The 1999 ONDCP report reads, “Incarcerating offenders without treating underlying substance-abuse problems simply defers the time when they are released back into our communities to start harming themselves and the larger society.”
Dr. Ross Greene, who developed a strategy called Collaborative and Proactive Solutions, offers a potential path forward. Through his nonprofit Lives in the Balance, he and his team promote and train others in non-punitive, non-adversarial, skill-building and relationship-enhancing interventions for youth. These ideas are changing the way parents, schools, providers and juvenile detention facilities intervene in children’s lives.
My research suggests a consensus that intervening in children’s lives leads to less adult incarceration. This emerging consensus means the Legislature and the governor also have to address education and children’s service issues to combat this epidemic. Fostering safe, healthy childhoods rich with opportunity and enrichment may be the most important front.
For centuries societies have relied on punitive prison systems to deter criminal and otherwise objectionable behavior; yet the behavior persists.
In this day and age we know enough about human behavior to figure out why, and we have ample visionaries to lead the way to a necessary paradigm shift. All we need is political leadership capable of embracing a long overdue change.
Trish Callahan lives in Augusta.