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Romano: Creating convicts instead of results in Florida's ongoing drug war

SCOTT KEELER | Times WestCare GulfCoast Center resident and US Marine veteran Taylor Wilkerson, 28, talks about his opioid addiction after he served in Afghanistan. He joined other residents at theWestCare GulfCoast Center, St. Petersburg. The Florida Department of Corrections is cutting down on the number of beds for substance abuse centers; that means nonviolent drug offenders are now more likely to go to jail instead of getting into a rehabilitation program.
Published May 5, 2018

By now we should know the most effective way to handle drug addiction — in terms of cost, crime and human life — is through rehabilitation and not incarceration. And yet, the Department of Corrections slashed the budget for substance abuse treatment facilities statewide last week. The funding cuts were ostensibly caused by an increase in the state's prison medical expenses, but that's merely a detail. The true problem is the Legislature has consistently ignored criminal justice reforms, while the state's prison budget has ballooned to $2.4 billion. I spoke with counselors, addicts and court officials this week about the effects of cutting back on rehabilitation and re-entry programs.

Judge Dee Anna Farnell has presided over Pinellas County's drug court for 12 years: Treatment programs are cost effective, and that's important, but the long-term goal is trying to keep moms with their children and keep dads at home and at work. That is the burden that is going to blow up in society's face.

Jason Grunzo, 45, is a father of two who worked in computer repairs before spiraling into addiction and being arrested on theft charges. He was looking at a short jail sentence but chose a longer rehabilitation program at WestCare: We don't have s--- in here. We don't have money. We have a couple of TVs and a handful of counselors who care. We don't get massages, we're not taking trips to the beach, we're not going to movies. We don't have much funding as it is. The reason this works is the people behind it. It's the love. That's where the hope is.

James Dates is a regional vice president at WestCare Gulf Coast in St. Petersburg, which is losing about 40 percent of its capacity because of DOC cuts: I know the average person isn't really concerned about this, but eventually they will be. When it's their kid, or their grandkid, or their friend who can't find help, then they'll be concerned.

Joseph Fragos, 31, spent 13 months in Afghanistan in the Army. Feeling lost when he returned home, he turned to alcohol and later became addicted to crack cocaine: I've lost more brothers from my unit to suicide and overdose than we lost in combat. It's crazy. The VA and military refuses to address these mental health problems, they just cast us aside. But being here for about 10 months now I've gotten some of that feeling of unity back that I never thought I'd find again. People who actually care about me.

Laura Sev, 19, was arrested on multiple charges including selling drugs when she was 17. Judge Frank Quesada offered her a chance to go to WestCare because he said prison would only make her bitter: I figured I would come here, do my time, go home and go back to the same street. Then I get here, and everyone is crying. At that point, I didn't care. But it's been nine months now and things have changed. I care now. I care about myself, about my safety, about my future. I have goals, I have accomplishments, I got my GED. For the first time, I have things to lose now.

Pinellas-Pasco Public Defender Bob Dillinger: When you lock up an addict, they're almost always still an addict when they get out of jail. The waiting list for (rehab) is already too long, and so now jail will just be the default position.

Lauren Jimolka, 33, was a certified nursing assistant who said short-term rehab and county jail stints do not solve addiction problems: When I went back to jail the second time a girl there had all of this Xanax. She was like, "Free Xanax, here you are.' I traded some of my food from the commissary and got drugs. Jail doesn't keep you from anything.

Sandy Duvernay, a 42-year-old grandmother who grew up doing drugs with her parents, learned the hard way that showing vulnerability in prison is not the answer: If you put your guard down and try to work on your issues in prison, your life is going to be in danger. Like literally. Not figuratively, but literally. You tell so-and-so what's going on in your life, or you shed a tear, and now you've got to worry about getting cut. So, you learn what's what, you follow orders, you keep your mouth shut and you get your release date.

Keith Jackson, 40, spent more than half of his life in prison before coming to WestCare: They're giving me a second chance at life in here, and I appreciate that. But what about the kids coming up behind me? Who's going to help them? To me, that's unacceptable. If there aren't places like this, they might as well start building more prisons.

Josh Vellucci, 42, is a father of five. A functioning addict for more than a decade, he's spent the past 14 months at WestCare, has already started a new job and is scheduled to graduate next week: Whereas jails and prisons teach you how to be a better criminal, this gives you a platform to be a better person. They need to see the benefit from being in a place like this. After years and years of destroying my life, I've been given the opportunity to actually put the pieces back together again, to rebuild the house I destroyed. I never got that in jail.

Mary Lynn Ulrey is the CEO at DACCO Behavioral Health in Hillsborough County, which is losing about 25 percent of its funding from the Department of Corrections: More people are going to fail, and more people will go back to prison. It's just very painful to think about.

Taylor Wilkerson, 28, was a Marine in Afghanistan who got addicted to painkillers after suffering service-related injuries, and was eventually arrested on burglary charges: The VA only had a 30-day program, which wasn't going to help me. After getting in trouble I was offered this program, which is 18 months and more of what I need. In a way, I'm happy it happened the way it did.

William Cichy, 21, was smoking pot and drinking at 12. By seventh grade he was using Xanax, Ecstasy and LSD: When I was using drugs and doing bad things I always thought, "Oh it's the drugs making me do this.' It kind of was, but it was also that I had this mindset of instant gratification. I never really felt the need to do anything better with my life. Now I've come to realize the potential that I have.

Sandy Duvernay: If you want a new life and a better life you have to have a program like this or it's not going to work. The drugs are going to call you back. And if the wounds aren't healed you're just going to go back to the same stuff. It's an endless cycle. Otherwise, you can go in and out of prison all your life.

Judge Farnell: The ramifications for our county? People are going to die. That's all there is to it.


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