Sarah O'Leary

Treatment Centers Versus Jail Time

When the Drug Enforcement Agency raided Jill Bartschi's home on November 11, 1999, her first thought was one of relief -- relief that her two-year-old son JT was with his dad for the weekend. The relief didn't last long. Jill was taken to jail on methampethamine charges. She was afraid Child Protective Services would take her son away from her. Not knowing how long she would have to stay in jail, Jill called her parents, asking them to pick up JT and keep him until the ordeal was over.

JT stayed with his grandparents for the remainder of the week while his mother served her jail time.

During that week of incarceration, after her live-in boyfriend who was on parole was sent back to prison for operating his garage meth lab, Jill was still thinking about her son. Concerned, she stayed with her parents for almost a month after her release. But the prison scare wasn't enough to kick Jills habit, and three weeks after the raid she was back in the meth house with her toddler son.

For the next four months, between the everyday routine of mealtime, naptime and playtime, Jill used meth.

A type of stimulant, meth directly affects the central nervous system, increasing wakefulness and physical activity and decreasing appetite. Although the effects differ slightly for everyone, Jill says that she and her friends liked meth because of its ability to make them "go, go, go."

Meth's endless energy seems attractive until the user comes down from the high, gets irritable and needs excessive amounts of sleep. Eventually, the desire to keep moving at such as fast past makes people get high again, propelling them into an extremely addictive, daily habit. Jill says that some days she was using at least three or four times. Yet, the feeling of being powerful and invincible that comes with being high on meth convinced her that she was a competent, responsible mother.

When she wasn't high, Jill found herself conflicted by her varying roles of addict and stay-at-home mom. To make up for her inconsistencies, she enforced rules that a normal mother would. "I never let anyone smoke cigarettes in the house and we never used drugs in the house; not while JT was awake, anyway."

But the true test of motherhood came in the early hours of March 7, 2000, when the Salt Lake County, Utah Sheriffs Office and the DEA pounded down her door in another raid, this time with JT in the house. Lying face down on the floor, Jill couldnt see her son, but remembers him crying "Mom, mom, mom." The police wouldnt let Jill hold JT and only took off her handcuffs when it was time for him to be taken by the State Division of Child and Family Services.

"All I could do was pack [JT's] little suitcase, give him his teddy bear and a kiss and tell him that his Mom loved him. I didn't know when I would see him again. "

Mandated by the court to check into a residential treatment program, Jill served three days in jail and then lived in her jeep while on the waiting list for the House of Hope.

Finally, on May 9, 63 days after the raid, and three weeks into the House of Hopes residential treatment program, Jill got to see her son again. The Division of Child and Family Services allowed JT to move in with his mother as long as she continued the residential treatment. Although Jill didn't regain custody of JT from the state of Utah until October 2000, she says that having him with her made such a difference in the treatment process. They were both able to get help dealing with the effects of Jill's substance abuse.

Jill, who says that she never imagined doing treatment before her arrest, says now that she couldnt have gotten sober without it. Treatment programs, unlike jail time, address issues of self-esteem, anger management, emotional stress and decision-making skills issues that help people stay sober.

While their parents are in treatment sessions, children attend a program designed to help them deal with the traumas of substance abuse, targeting issues that may eventually cause them to become abusers themselves one day.

Cornerstone Counseling Center, a nonprofit organization and Salt Lake City's first formal drug treatment center, has a similar program. Drug-addicted mothers and their children receive treatment together, working on trust, separation issues and building healthy relationships.

These programs are effective, says Cornerstones executive director Gary Baker, because they approach substance abuse in its larger context. Simply providing detox does not enable a person to find alternatives to help cope with the life problems that originally brought them to depend on a substance.

Jill, who says she was resistant to treatment at first, agrees. Part of the House of Hope program involves teaching people basic life management skills such as cooking, cleaning and caring for their children. Jill admits that she was arrogant when she entered the program because she felt like she had been performing those daily tasks adequately the last two years. Her attitude quickly changed, however, when she realized that if that were true she would not be living in a drug treatment facility. Now, more than a year after graduating from a four-month residential program and almost a year of day treatment, Jill is still sober, has full custody of her son and says that she will never again risk her son or herself to the meth world. In that frame of mind, she continues to attend weekly after-care meetings and hasn't had any relapses. Jill is just one of the estimated five million people arrested last year with a severe drug or alcohol addiction. She is luckier than most. Because she had a dependent child, Jill was able to go through treatment instead of spending time in jail. For most drug arrests, jail is the standard sentence.

Last year the Office of National Drug Control Policy estimated less than two million of those five million arrested addicts received treatment a gap of almost 60 percent. Instead, those drug offenders were sentenced to extended prison or jail time, entering as addicts, and after their time was served, leaving with the same addictions.

Welcome to the war on drugs. A war waged by America on American citizens. Citizens like Jill Bartschi who find themselves, regardless of their desire to be good parents and neighbors, pulled into the world of addiction. Citizens being punished instead of helped.

Approximately 85 percent of people who are incarcerated have a substance abuse problem, says Dr. Barbara Hardy, director of the Salt Lake County Division of Substance Abuse. "And addiction is one of the primary reasons...people go back to jail or prison. Studies show that incarcerating people instead of mandating treatment simply funds the social costs of recidivism, ultimately putting the same criminals back on the street to commit the same crimes."

Considering that it costs society an estimated $18,400 to $26,000 to keep a person in prison for a year and only $1,800 to $4,700 for a year of treatment, treatment seems to be the obvious option for most drug offenders.

Yet, the government continues to send people to jail for substance abuse, even though Dr. Hardy maintains that "you cannot punish [substance abuse] out of someone."

What about the person who receives treatment and, six months later, relapses? Should they then be sent to jail or prison? "Not necessarily," says Dr. Hardy. "It makes much more sense [in terms of societal cost and recidivism] to put someone in treatment, even though it may take several repetitions, than to just lock them up."

Looking back over her own experience, Jill comes to similar conclusions. Although she admits that the first time through treatment doesn't always work for everyone, she is proof that treatment can work. Now, a sober mother who might still be in jail if she received a typical sentencing, Jill teaches four-year-old JT the truth about drugs. And while JT will be the first to tell you that drugs will ruin your teeth and rot your life, hes just glad to have his mother there.

Sarah O'Leary is Catalyst's editorial assistant and a senior in the English department at the University of Utah. She can be reached at catalystmagazine@earthlink.net.

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