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'Hug a Thug' Beats Prison or Probation

Innovative program more successful at rehabbing jailed addicts

Nearly 250 addicts have taken part in Boulder's integrated treatment court since it began in November 2006.
Nearly 250 addicts have taken part in Boulder's integrated treatment court since it began in November 2006.

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Shelley Schlender

The need for drugs and alcohol - or the desire for money to buy them - can drive addicts to robbery, domestic violence and other crimes. Many people consider jail time the best way to keep them from committing more offenses. But an innovative program that focuses on addiction recovery is proving more successful than incarceration at rehabilitating addicts and reducing repeat crimes.

At the Boulder County Courthouse in Colorado, Carol Glowinsky sits at her judge's bench dressed in her official black robes. She is speaking with a woman who's been convicted of crimes motivated by her drug and alcohol addiction. But their conversation sounds more like a therapist talking with a client.

Glowinsky praises the woman for getting a job. "One thing we talked about last time was anxiety, and starting a new job is a great thing to focus on." They go on to discuss how the woman is handling the new responsibilities and staying sober.

To avoid jail, the woman has chosen to enroll in the Integrated Treatment Court.

Probation, with a twist

The 15-month program is similar to probation, with drug and sobriety tests as well as addiction counseling. But there is an important difference. Usually, therapists are required to keep their conversations with clients confidential. However, in integrated treatment cases, they speak openly with Glowinsky, probation officers and other members of the team. "It's the heart of the model that you get a full picture," says Glowinsky. "A lot of people with addictions are good at deception and the model doesn't let you get away with it since we all talk every couple of weeks."

Carol Glowinsky is one of several judges in Boulder County, Colorado who is involved in the integrated treatment court program.
Carol Glowinsky is one of several judges in Boulder County, Colorado who is involved in the integrated treatment court program.

This team approach also leads to more supportive courtroom conversations. Glowinsky nods with understanding as the young woman admits that what's keeping her away from drugs is the fear of going back to jail. "Early on," Glowinsky tells her, "having a really concrete thing like jail helps people stay clean."

About a dozen people sit in the courtroom's spectator's section listening. Each is an addict who's been convicted of a crime. Each will have a turn to talk with Judge Glowinsky.

Coddling a criminal?

When Glowinsky wraps up her session with the young woman, she gives her a gift card for movie tickets, a small reward for the woman's progress so far. Recovered addicts say they often cherish these tokens from the judge.

But that sort of incentive makes some law enforcement officers cringe. "They called it 'hug a thug,'" says Deputy District Attorney Debbie Welsh. She prosecutes people accused of crimes and points out that those gifts are being given to people who've been convicted. "Some of them have stolen items from people and owe them restitution. And the thought of handing this person a $20 gift card when they still owe a victim $2000 can really grate on you, at least as an initial reaction."

But as a member of Boulder's 4-year old integrated treatment team, Welsh has become a fan. Compared to standard probation, she says this model is much more successful at helping addicts stay sober, get a job and follow through on paying restitution. And, its graduates are 35 percent less likely to commit another crime, compared to people sentenced to prison or probation.

Success stories

Statistics like that have helped raise interest in this approach. The National Drug Court Institute reports that more than 2,000 U.S. courts follow this model. Worldwide, ten countries now have similar programs.

Here in Boulder, August Turner is one example of how well the integrated treatment court program can work. He was an addict who spent 30 years in and out of jail, until three years ago, when he signed up for the program.

Turner is proud that he has not relapsed. "I owe that to the people that had great faith in me," he says. Turner has paid back $20,000 in restitution he owed for previous crimes. He now holds a full-time job and has become a leader for programs throughout the county that help addicts stay clean and sober. "I am different now," he says with a laugh, "I'm the person that I probably always wanted to be."

Improving lives and bottom lines

Boulder Sheriff Joe Pelle says that, by reducing repeat offenses, the integrated treatment court makes the county safer and it's saved money. He points out that when he became sheriff seven years ago, the jail population was growing at an average of around 4 or 5 percent per year.

"Since we've done integrated treatment court and the mental health program and a number other things, that growth-in-jail rate has stabilized. People are still committing crimes but they're being treated differently. As a result, they tend not to come back as frequently."

He shrugs off criticism that the integrated treatment model is soft on criminals. "Yeah. It might be," he admits. "And maybe that's why it works."

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