By CHARLIE MATHEWS
MANITOWOC, Wis. (AP) — A more humane, less costly alternative to throwing drug addicts into prison is a key goal of a Lakeshore-area social justice group.
Members of RUTH — Responding with Understanding, Truth and Hope — are working to create opportunities for criminals like Vicki Nicholls, 48, to spend less time behind bars and lead productive lives.
With multiple state and federal convictions related to illegal drug use and using false IDs to pill shop for prescription pain medications, Nicholls faced six years in prison, HTR Media reported.
Instead, the Green Bay resident and mother of Tiffany, 14, and twins, Tabitha and Hunter, 7, took advantage of the Brown County Adult Drug Court and was incarcerated for just seven months.
But for Nicholls, and other drug court participants, the shorter jail time came with a multitude of restrictions and requirements: hundreds of hours of community service, alcohol-drug counseling sessions, complying with random daily drug testing and numerous meetings with supervising judges, probation agents and drug court coordinator.
“It’s not an easy program for an addict,” said Nicholls, who became addicted to Vicodin and Percocet following the birth of her twins.
“I was living in controlled chaos,” she said. “I wasn’t used to somebody telling me, ‘These are your boundaries.’ You have to really want to do this program or you’re sure to fail.”
The motivation of re-uniting with her children after seven months versus six years was Nicholls’ fundamental motivation to comply with the requirements imposed by Circuit Court Judge Donald Zuidmulder.
She said she is surviving “by my teeth with rental assistance and food stamps. My charges really hinder my getting a job … I just keep trying, applying everywhere … I’ve never collected unemployment because I haven’t worked anywhere long enough to qualify,” Nicholls said Wednesday.
A member of RUTH, part of the WISDOM, a statewide network of congregation-based community organizations, drove Nicholls to the Manitowoc County Courthouse so she could share her hopes of other Wisconsin counties implementing TAD — Treatment Alternatives and Diversions programs.
RUTH members say support is building among local politicians and court officials but, presently, Manitowoc County does not have any TAD programs including, in addition to adult drug, family dependency treatment, juvenile drug, veterans treatment, mental health, DWI (driving while intoxicated) or risk reduction treatment court.
Members of RUTH are ardent supporters of an overarching WISDOM initiative, “11×15 for Safer & Healthier Communities.”
It calls for actions that would reduce the state prison population from about 22,000 to 11,000 by the end of 2015.
A WISDOM document from fall 2014 states the campaign has helped achieve a 300 percent increase in state money for treatment alternatives to incarceration with bipartisan support.
A previous report from the organization said prison is four times more costly than treatment — approximately $32,000 per year for putting someone behind bars compared to about $7,500 for annual costs associated with participants in a TAD program.
A brochure states the campaign “demands bold action from the Wisconsin Legislature and Administration to:
— Keep people from entering prison.
— Treat current prisoners justly.
— Help those returning from prison to re-enter society successfully.”
Supporters acknowledge a halving of the state prison population, at any point in time, won’t be possible without progress on numerous criminal justice reform fronts.
“Our quality of life is not predicated on how many are sitting in our jails but how many are rehabilitated,” said RUTH’s Dick Lemberger, who draws a clear distinction between being “smart” on crime versus “soft.”
“We all known someone who has been incarcerated,” said Jerry Schubring, who serves as a mentor to ex-cons as part of the Manitowoc Salvation Army’s Prison Aftercare Program.
A WISDOM document states, “A majority of those in Wisconsin’s jails and prisons suffer from mental illness and-or addictions. These are public health issues and are best addressed with public health solutions.”
When it comes to illicit drug users facing repeated jail sentences Schubring said, “We are punishing these people over and over again … we have to rehabilitate them so they won’t go back to prison.”
Wisconsin spends $1.2 billion annually on the Department of Corrections, approximately the same as on the University of Wisconsin system.
Lemberger believes it is “immoral” how prison dollars take away from other possible expenditures.
RUTH member Darlene Wellner, one of the local Prison Aftercare Program founders, laments how prison dollars take away from other possible expenditures, including education.
A retired social worker from Lakeshore CAP, Wellner supports WISDOM’s call to stop treating all 17-year-olds as adults in the criminal justice system.
Other WISDOM affiliates are focused on other aspects of corrections reform including putting restrictions on the use of solitary confinement as ineffective, immoral, dangerous and expensive.