• Getting free
    February 06,2014

    Swift action to establish the new rapid intervention program in our state’s courts is a welcome step toward reducing the damage caused by drug addiction.

    Announcement of the program came the same day that news stories told us of the death of Philip Seymour Hoffman, one of the most accomplished actors of his generation. Authorities found the 46-year-old Hoffman dead with a syringe still in his arm and bundles of heroin stashed away in his New York City apartment.

    Hoffman’s death is no more nor less tragic than the deaths of countless less famous people who succumb every day to overdoses of heroin or other drugs. But it underscores the fatal grip that opiates exercise on people — even rich and famous people who have the resources to seek the treatment that might help free them from their addiction.

    Many people have developed an affectionate regard for Hoffman because of the truthfulness of his acting and the many diverse characters he brought to sympathetic life on the stage and screen. It is instructive to realize that the inner demons or genetic disposition that may have led him to drugs showed no respect for his artistic skills. Apparently, he had been struggling with his addiction for many years, had been clean and had relapsed.

    There are hundreds of people throughout Vermont in the same boat. It is widely acknowledged that they, like Hoffman, are victims of an illness that will be with them for the rest of their lives. They do not dwell in the precincts of celebrity and stardom, but they are our sons and daughters and would have promising lives before them if they could get free of their addictions. Many of them, lacking the wealth of a movie star, are driven to desperate acts to pay for the drugs they crave. In consequence, they find themselves standing before a judge and the prospect of a life wasted in jail, followed by the marginalized status of life as an ex-convict.

    The rapid intervention program is meant to help them avoid that fate. It has a proven record in Chittenden County. Since the program there was founded four years ago, 1,200 offenders have participated. Of the 470 offenders who completed the program successfully between September 2012 and December 2012, there was a recidivism rate of only 7 percent. That is a stunningly low number. Those who failed to complete the program had a recidivism rate of 25 percent. Commonly, recidivism rates reach 30 percent or more.

    The rapid intervention program allows offenders charged with low-level drug-related offenses to enter a 90-day drug treatment program rather than face criminal charges in court. If they fail their treatment program or commit a new crime, they will end up back in court.

    The new program is similar to a drug court that has been in operation in Rutland for about 10 years. The difference is that the drug court provides for a year of treatment and is employed in cases of more serious crime. Authorities there believe the two programs will complement each other.

    It is common to look at drug addicts as low-life losers who are not worth our concern or our tax dollars — until we encounter an addict who happens to be a friend, family member, neighbor, or a beloved actor whose humanity is plain to see in his work. Then we realize that the effort we make in providing an avenue away from addiction serves the humanity of ordinary, suffering Vermonters and those who love them.

    Addressing the cause of crime by going at the addiction that provokes it is also pragmatic public policy, reducing the enormous and growing burden of holding people in prison. Not everyone will succeed in breaking free of drugs. There will be people who reject the entire idea of treatment, who squander their one life, who remain a burden and a danger. But their failures should not be allowed to steal the chance for recovery from those among us struggling to have their lives back.

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