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Alcohol & drug abuse involved in 80% of nation’s jail terms

WASHINGTON (BP)–Alcoholism and drug addiction are key elements in the explosion in America’s prison population, according to a recently released study.
Many proponents of faith-based rehabilitation, meanwhile, say a faith approach is the only kind that can make a lasting impact on the problem.
A 281-page study issued by the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse (CASA) at Columbia University in New York found that the number of inmates in state, federal and local prisons tripled, from 500,000 to 1.7 million, between 198
0 and 1996.
Of that number, drug and alcohol abuse and addiction are involved in 80 percent of the incarcerations, the study said.
Other key findings of the study included:
— The more prior convictions an individual has, the more likely the person is to be a drug abuser. In state prisons, 41 percent of first offenders have used drugs regularly, compared to 63 percent of inmates with two prior convictions and 81 percent of inmates with five or more prior convictions.
— As the number of inmates in need of treatment has risen, the proportion receiving it has declined. From 1995 to 1996, the number of inmates in treatment decreased by 18,360, while inmates defined as in need of treatment rose by 39,578.
— Alcohol is more closely associated with crimes of violence than any other drug. It is a bigger culprit in connection with murder, rape, assault and child and spouse abuse than any illegal drug.
— Arrests for drug law violations grew at more than 10 times the rate of property crime arrests and more than twice the rate of violent crime arrests between 198
0 and 1996.
— One of every 60 men is currently incarcerated, including one of every 14 black men and one of every 34 Hispanic men. If rates of incarceration continue to rise at their current pace, one in every 20 Americans born in 1997 — one in every 11 men, including one in every four black men — will serve time in prison during their lifetime.
Other studies have come up with similar findings. A Jan. 19 article in The New York Times cited research showing the incarceration rate for drug offenders alone today is about 145 per 100,000 — higher than the average incarceration rate for all offenses from the 1920s to the early 1970s — and 25 percent of the new inmates entering prison in New York State are “drug-only” offenders, with no record of other types of crimes.
Joseph A. Califano Jr., chairman and president of CASA, said its study found “religion and spirituality are very important components of recovery for individuals in prison, indeed with drug or alcohol problems under any circumstances.” He cited Chuck Colson’s Prison Fellowship as an example of a faith-based program that has had “a significant impact in reducing criminal activity and recidivism.”
Barry McCaffrey, the Clinton Administration’s drug czar, in a news conference concerning the study, said, “In the past two years, it’s clear to me that when it comes to drug treatment, the federal government won’t be the solution. It’s going to come from local, state, federal, non-governmental, the drug-free workplace initiatives. But in addition, I would suggest that it’s going to come from the faith community in America.”
Pat Nolan, president of the Justice Fellowship arm of Prison Fellowship, told Baptist Press, “We don’t have a particular program for substance abuse. What we do is take the gospel into the prisons and try to get the offenders to commit their lives to Christ. Once they turn their lives over to Christ, the power of the addiction is replaced with their dedication to Christ. They’re given the strength to overcome this weakness.”
Byron Johnson, professor of criminology at Lamar University in Beaumont, Texas, and director of its Center for Justice, Research and Education, has done research on organizations like Prison Fellowship. He is monitoring the progress of participants in Innerchange, an experimental program in which PF is working with about 80 soon-to-be- released Christian inmates at the Texas state prison system’s Jester II unit to provide them with employment, a home church and mentoring.
“Unless you have the spiritual component in it, in my estimation, these programs are not going to work,” Johnson said.
According to Johnson, the inmate code at most prisons means prisoners don’t submit to one another, and they keep quiet about the things that make them vulnerable. Secular approaches fail to deal with this problem, he said, but when prisoners have had a spiritual transformation, “they don’t have a problem any more in opening up.”
Johnson is excited about the program at the Jester II unit, for which Prison Fellowship has provided $1.2 million in funding. He called for more money to finance such projects — as well as studies of them like the one he is making to document the results of faith-based programs in “top-flight journals” that will make secular criminal justice scholars and government officials take notice.
“The problem with Christians is, they rely on anecdotes and don’t put their money where their mouth is,” said Johnson, a member of Calvary Baptist Church, Beaumont, Texas. “Christians aren’t taken seriously because they have not made the effort to do top-flight research.” But if such studies are made, he said, “people will listen, even if they’re antagonistic to the gospel.”
Barrett Duke, a specialist in alcohol and drug issues for the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission in Nashville, Tenn., said the CASA study contains several challenges for churches.
First, the church must renew its message warning against the dangers of not only illicit drugs but alcohol as well, Duke said. “The church must educate its own members and take a more active role in society about the utter destructiveness of alcohol and other drugs,” he said.
In addition, Duke said, the church “must see itself as a reclamation center where people can find the kinds of support, love, encouragement, acceptance and direction that will enable them to gain control of their lives instead of slipping back into the destructive control of alcohol and other drugs.”

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  • Darrell Turner