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Editorial Archives — The Altamont Enterprise, May 12, 2011

Break the cycle by treating alcoholics, not jailing them

“I was a fix-it guy and I couldn’t fix this one,” Ed Frank once told us. He was talking about the death of his son from cancer at age 45. “Grief affects people in a lot of different ways.”

Frank turned his grief into action. His son, a Colonie cop, had been a race-car driver — his car was #301 — who started a program to teach young people that speeding cars belonged solely on a raceway.

His father took up the cause and started Choices 301, based in Altamont, to raise awareness about the dangers of driving while drunk or drugged.

“I like Ed’s approach because it’s not a scare-straight tactic,” said Dean Hale who works at the Bridge Center in Schenectady, a residential rehab facility for men. “It emphasizes that you have choices and those choices have consequences.”

Frank doesn’t deal just with teens who may need a jolt to realize their actions have consequences. Last week, he hosted a group of 15 hard-core alcoholics from the Bridge Center to hear from those who have suffered from chemical dependency and have lived with the consequences.  One of them was a man who drove drunk 27 years ago and got in a car crash that killed a little girl.

“The fact that I killed somebody is so hard to deal with, and I tried to drink it away,” the middle-aged man told the group. He was arrested again for drunk driving three years ago and, through counseling, learned to be honest with himself. “It’s a game-changer,” he said. “Once somebody is dead, you can’t bring them back. I’m not going to kill someone again.”

Ed Frank has taken on a huge problem to try to fix — the Centers for Disease Control attributes 79,000 deaths annually to excessive alcohol use, making it the third leading preventable cause of death; the alcoholic is also the cause of unintentional injuries, says the CDC which include drunk-driving crashes, falls, drownings, burns, and firearm injuries, and alcohol use is associated with two out of three incidents of intimate partner violence, and is a leading factor in child maltreatment and neglect cases.

Frank said he was moved by our Dec. 8 editorial. He read parts of it to the Bridge Center men:

In the decades since alcoholism was labeled a disease — in 1958, by the American Medical Association — there has been a disconnect between the way doctors view alcoholism and the way courts treat those who have the disease, we wrote. The Centers for Disease Control writes that alcoholism is a chronic disease with symptoms that include continued use despite repeated physical, psychological, or interpersonal problems; the alcoholic is unable to limit drinking.

We also wrote that, if we want to stop the slaughter on our streets, we, as New Yorkers, have to make the punishment fit the crime. Rehab is not a picnic for an alcoholic; in many ways, it can be tougher than pointlessly sitting in a jail cell. But it would give the alcoholic a chance to recover, and it would give society a chance to reduce the maiming and slaughter.

Our jails are called “correctional facilities” but, particularly in recent years with budget cuts, most any hope of “correction” has been cut, too. This means that, after an alcoholic convicted of drunk driving has served his time, he is released and likely to repeat the crime.

“I was locked up in county jail, and I didn’t learn anything about addiction while I was there,” said one of the Bridge Center men at last week’s Choices 301 session. “I just wanted to get my time done and get out. “

But, the young man went on, “When I got into rehab, I learned all about the disease, and you need to learn about it in order to treat it.”

Our reporter Anne Hayden put a human face, a sad and struggling human face, on the problem this week in her portrait of 59-year-old Victor O. A son of alcoholic parents, Victor started drinking at the tender age of 9. “When I was a kid,” he said, “I connected alcohol with my parents’ going out and having a great time; I didn’t make the connection between alcohol and their fights, and alcohol and my dad’s abusiveness.”

Victor agreed that jail time did nothing to help sobriety and said that, if an inmate were struggling with an addiction and trying to get sober, he could be seen as weak and become an easy target for other inmates.

Victor was arrested for burglary at 10 and, during his two years in reform school, said he learned to be a criminal. When he got out, he lived on the streets, addicted to heroin and alcohol.

What turned his life around, after a string of arrests, was at age 33 when he was required to attend a treatment program and was sent to Altamont to Father Peter Young’s program.

When Father Young began working in Albany’s South End in the 1950’s, alcoholism was a crime. Martha Holesapple was arrested for public drunkenness 238 times, said Young.  That’s what spurred him to action.

“We’re housing over 3,000 people a night, from Buffalo to Brooklyn, in every city in the state,” Young said earlier of his housing centers, which provide treatment and housing for people who are addicted to drugs or alcohol.

 “The biggest thing I did was de-stigmatize,” he told The Enterprise earlier.  “I de-stigmatized addiction.”  That’s what enabled people to get help, he said.  When they no longer had to admit to being a criminal to attend Alcoholics Anonymous, people began to get help, said Young.

After years of work, Young won support for decriminalizing alcoholism and, since 1976, a person cannot be jailed for public intoxication, he said.  At first, he said, politicians saw his priest’s collar and dismissed him as a do-gooder, but, when he presented the costs of incarcerating drunks, he got some attention. 

“I proved it was cost effective,” he said.  “That’s how I got credibility.”

In the 1980s, Father Young set up an Honor Court program to offer non-violent offenders who have committed alcohol- or drug-related crimes an opportunity to go to drug treatment instead of jail. Today, he oversees a $20 million organization that has 90 residential sites in the state, in-patient treatment centers, halfway houses, and contracts with various agencies and companies to hire the people he is training.

A study done by the State University of New York School of Criminal Justice in 1997 found that people who went through the Father Young programs returned to prison or violated their paroles only 8 percent of the time, as opposed to 80 percent for those who did not participate.

After his treatment at Altamont’s Peter Young Center, Victor stayed sober for 16 years. This allowed him to go to school, become an accredited alcohol counselor, get married, buy a house, and create a family.

But in 2001, he met up with some old friends who were still drinking and had a rum and coke. Things spiraled quickly out of control as he returned to addiction, lost his home and family, and landed back in jail. Now diagnosed with hepatitis, he needs a liver transplant to survive.

“I’m on the transplant list, but they won’t do the transplant if I’m using,” said Victor. Nor should they. Victor is at the Bridge Center now and has been sober since November. “I need to repair my relationship with my family,” he said. “My son won’t let me see my granddaughter until I stay clean”

His advice is for people to acknowledge the devastation alcohol and substance abuse has caused, and to recognize that it is a true disease.

“Education and intervention is the key,” Victor said. More judges in the court system should be educated in drug and alcohol addiction, and know what programs are available in their counties, he said.

We agree. Jail time without treatment just becomes a turnstile for further abuse, further crime, further destruction.

“Not cured, maybe, but inappropriate and illegal behavior while under the influence can be stopped with proper treatment,” said Greg Spencer, a clinician who has served as a consultant for various treatment programs, including Father Peter Youngs’s and OASAS, the state’s Office of Alcoholism and Substance Abuse Services.

“When you break the law, there has to be a consequence,” said Spencer, “and it seems like the courts want to use incarceration as a deterrent…Albany County is particularly stringent on this; the county is rather inflexible.”

In other places throughout New York, drug courts have been set up, which have a collaborative approach to treatment. Non-violent addicted offenders become part of an intervention process. Defense attorneys, prosecutors, treatment and education providers, and law-enforcement officials work together to formulate a treatment plan for the offender.

As of September 2010, there were 179 drug courts across the state, and a survey of six courts showed that the rates at which drug court graduates re-offend is significantly reduced, in comparison to incarceration.

Such an approach is essential, not just for those suffering from addiction but for the good of society at large.

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