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Florida drug treatment programs may get cut

Priscilla Bush gave birth to her third child just hours after she was arrested for violating probation on drug charges.

Bush faced 18 months in prison, but fought to get into treatment for her prescription drug addiction at Operation PAR in Largo. She has been there 11 months and will get out in August.

"It saved my life," she said.

But it's unclear if people like Bush will get the same help next year as Florida lawmakers cut more than $2-billion from the state's budget. Drug abuse treatment programs, both under social service and corrections budgets, are at risk.

"I'm terrified that it's going to be cut," said Bush, 27. "That's terrible. I can't even fathom that."

The possibility has both state and local officials on edge. They see treatment as more cost effective than prison. Plus, drug use is as prevalent as ever, with prescription drug abuse flooding treatment centers with new addicts. Funding already was cut about 15 percent last year.

"We know that crime is intimately linked with alcohol and substance abuse," said Nancy Hamilton, chief executive of Operation PAR, Tampa Bay's largest publicly funded program. "It's not an isolated thing. When people don't get treatment, they get worse."

The worry began last week when Corrections Secretary Walter McNeil appeared before a Senate committee, whose chairman, Victor Crist, R-Tampa, had asked how to cut 10 percent of the agency's $3.2-billion budget.

McNeil reluctantly suggested cutting $36-million for prisoners, probationers and those in drug court — a cut that would close most of the state's publicly funded treatment centers.

"I think a majority of them would go out of business," said Pam Denmark, McNeil's deputy assistant secretary for community corrections. "Some could get by, but it would be a tremendous hardship."

Hamilton said the cuts would mean 2,400 fewer people would receive treatment next year. That's about one-fifth of PAR's current clientele.

Denmark said two-thirds of inmates have substance abuse problems and that most of their crimes were fueled by addiction.

Corrections officials have said offenders who complete treatment are 44 percent less likely to return to prison. And officials predict treatment for all inmates with drug problems would prevent more than 21,000 felony arrests a year.

Other agencies also were forced to look for 10 percent cuts. The departments of Juvenile Justice and Children and Families also put drug treatment on the chopping block.

"I'm hoping we find alternatives to cutting these services or the problems are going to magnify," said Bill Janes, the DCF assistant secretary who also oversees the state Office of Drug Control. "More crime, more broken families, more devastation in our communities."

Gov. Charlie Crist earlier this year proposed spending $28.8-million more on the Corrections Department drug treatment programs. But the state's fiscal picture has worsened since then. The Legislature is considering the largest one-time cuts in years to balance the state budget without raising new revenue.

Sen. Crist, who is no relation to the governor, said he hopes funding for drug treatment can be preserved.

"That would be the last resort in the cutting process," he said Monday evening. "Right now, I haven't touched any of the drug treatment stuff. I think that those programs are already skinny. I have a history of fighting to fund them."

Sara Romeo, CEO of Tampa Crossroads, said she doesn't expect treatment funding to be eliminated.

But she expects her state money to take a 10 percent hit, which could be more devastating to smaller treatment centers that rely more heavily on state dollars.

"There are substance abuse providers who are going to be closed nonetheless," she said. "I don't think there's any way nobody will be touched this year."

Bush, the client at Operation PAR, said the program has helped her keep her two oldest children, who live with her in residential treatment. Her youngest is living with a sister.

"If I hadn't come to PAR, my kids, honestly, would have been in foster care," Bush said. "They would be too much to handle. There's no way I would be clean if I was released from prison today. I would be let out with all this anger and all this guilt. I don't think I'd be able to live with myself."

Florida drug treatment programs may get cut 03/24/08 [Last modified: Wednesday, March 26, 2008 3:32pm]
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