Proposed Law Would Change, Expand Drug-Treatment Programs

Proposed Law Would Change, Expand Drug-Treatment Programs

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SALT LAKE CITY (AP) -- Lawmakers are proposing a three-year drug-reform plan that would change the way offenders with drug and alcohol programs are screened, sentenced and then treated.

The Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice Interim Committee endorsed the Drug Offender Reform Act this past week. It will be considered by the full Legislature in January.

An estimated 85 percent of all offenders have some sort of substance abuse problem, Susan Burke, director of the Utah Substance Abuse and Anti-Violence Coordinating Council, told lawmakers.

But Burke's data show that only 44 percent of the more than 4,100 offenders sentenced to community-based sanctions will get drug treatment. Among prison inmates, about 3,200 need treatment but only 36 percent will receive it. And of the more than 3,400 offenders on parole, about 72 percent get into treatment, although many are sent back to prison for new drug offenses.

In its first year, the bill seeks to create 1,600 new treatment slots: 600 in the community, 500 for inmates and 500 for parolees. Similar increases would come in subsequent years.

Key to the reform would be the administration of substance abuse assessment and screening at the time of an offender's pre-sentence evaluations. That would ensure that offenders get into the right program and start treatment immediately, Burke said.

Burke estimates a per-offender cost of about $3,500 for community-based treatment and about $2,900 per inmate.

The trouble will be finding a way to pay for it. The total three-year projected cost is $17.3 million, with $6.2 million needed the first year. But Burke and the Utah Commission on Criminal and Juvenile Justice also estimate the state would, within a few years, realize a per-person savings of $7 for every $1 spent on drug treatment.

At the committee's request, Burke and the Criminal and Juvenile Justice commission proposed two possible funding sources for the proposal that would not take money from the state's general fund. The first would increase the state liquor tax by 4 percent; the second suggests raising the motor vehicle registration fee by $2.25. Each option would raise the $6.3 million needed to increase the treatment capabilities by 1,600 slots, Burke said.

Uncomfortable with the idea of "a new tax," committee members opted to move the bill forward without tying it to a specific funding mechanism. Most agreed with Sen. Paula Julander, D-Salt Lake, that offenders should participate in paying for treatment and asked that more funding options be explored.

Third District Judge Dennis Fuchs encouraged the committee to find a way to fund the proposed reforms. Fuchs presides over Salt Lake County Drug Court and said forced treatment tied to serious sanctions has worked. Graduates from drug courts, which could be expanded under the reform act, re-offend at a very low rate, Fuchs said.

(Copyright 2003 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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