Alcohol court offers alternative to prison

Posted: Wednesday, July 19, 2000

Attorney Daniel Wayne wants Juneau to consider establishing a drug and alcohol court.

Colonial America used the stocks -- a form of public shaming -- to punish the drunk and disorderly. Public and legal debate has continued since then: Is jail the best punishment for substance abuse? Wayne thinks not. He also believes incarceration is too expensive, and suggests that having an alcohol and drug court could save Juneau half its annual $1 million jail budget.

He points to Connecticut's example. The New England state believes it has found the answer in its Alternative to Incarceration centers, which serve people referred from the state courts. According to a U.S. Department of Justice bulletin, the Alternative Sanctions Program served 150,000 offenders between 1990 and 1998 and saved $619 million in estimated capital and operating costs.

Rather than spending time in jail, Connecticut offenders undergo extensive counseling to explore the roots of their addictions, perform active community work service such as removing trash from inner-city vacant lots, and develop skills through reading programs.

The New Haven, Conn., Alternative Sanctions Program has a 75 percent success rate in keeping substance abusers from re-offending, Wayne said.

``Almost everybody who's in jail in Juneau is poor, and most chronic substance abusers in the system are indigent. This is a good time to establish a drug and alcohol court where certain nonviolent offenders would waive speedy trial rights,'' Wayne said.

A drug and alcohol court offers the defendant an opportunity to avoid conviction if the person agrees to waive his or her right to a speedy trial and is willing to participate in intensive monitoring.

``He escapes going to jail and losing a job,'' Wayne said.

The drug and alcohol court recognizes that relapse is part-and-parcel of addiction; it does not expect 100 percent compliance. What it does is order increasingly harsh punishments for lapses. In Connecticut, a first relapse nets the defendant 16 hours of community work service; a second, a night in jail; a third, expulsion from the program, Wayne said.

Judge Peter Froehlich wants to get such a court started as soon as possible, and would like to be its judge ``as part of his regular duties,'' Wayne said.

The idea of this ``restorative justice model'' appeals to attorney John Leque, the city's chief prosecutor.

``It would be a worthwhile experiment here in Juneau,'' Leque said. ``We are always interested in a better way of doing things. On the District Court level we deal with alcohol addiction all the time, because we see that in 95 percent of the cases.''

``It sounds like an intriguing idea, and if it would reduce substance abuse and incarceration costs, it would be a wonderful thing -- hard to resist,'' said city attorney John Corso.

But Corso admitted to some hesitation about the efficiency of a drug court's sanctions.

``Incarceration is supposed to affirm community norms and to act as a deterrent. I wonder if a drug court's decisions would accomplish these aims,'' he said.

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