FAST Should Focus on Community to Fight Addiction – Not Drug Courts

The local group FAST (Faith and Action for Strength Together) is an organization of 38 churches of various denominations. Each church diverts funds from the offertory basket to paid staff members of FAST who then participate in community organizing efforts to pressure government to adopt their agenda. The group holds a “Nehemiah action assembly” every spring and puts local elected officials on the stage to “demand” that they take action so that FAST can “do justice”.  FAST does not appear to spend any of the funds it raises on actual direct activities to help the poor or those struggling with various problems. It appears that its only objective is to push for tax-payer funded programs that may or may not work. 

One such program FAST has demanded for “Justice” includes passing legislation to fund and expand the use of “Drug Courts”.  These programs are designed to take a highly select group of low level offenders and put them into treatment programs if they plead guilty. The idea was that a $19 million  investment (from federal stimulus funds) would produce $95 million in savings by diverting people from incarceration.  The $95 million savings did not materialize and now people are looking to modify the program.  According to the State policy analysis body OPPAGA, 2/3 of the people entering the drug courts had committed crimes that would never have landed them in prison to begin with.  Further, the state had estimated that 4000 incarcerations would be prevented over two years when in fact lonely 324 people were admitted into the drug court.  OPPAGA’s pointed out that the money could have been better spent on community based drug treatment programs or a more costly expansion of the drug courts would be needed.  In 2011, under the leadership of Rep. Darryl Rousson, the legislature chose to expand the number of people who could be admitted into the drug court.  Time will tell whether this approach has produced better results and actually saves the state any money as it is designed to do. One also wonders how the state will afford millions of more for the program when the Federal grant runs out.

Unfortunately, as with many well meaning government programs, these programs appear to fall far short of promised goals all too often.  While there are individual success stories, a broader analysis reveals that these programs do not decrease actual costs of incarceration, cause arrests of people for minor possession of drugs that would otherwise never been subject to jail time, and do not increase public safety.  They also do not reduce addition any better than community based drug recovery programs that are less expensive and don’t rely on jail time as a threat to remain involved.  Further, people who “fail” these drug court programs often face longer sentences than they would have originally gotten if they had simply gone to a plea deal.  There are serious questions about violation of due process rights for people who are encouraged to plead guilty to a higher charge in exchange for participation in a drug court that they may fail to successfully navigate. A full analysis on the shortcomings of the drug court approach can be found by the groups Drug Policy Alliance  and the Justice Policy Institute. 

The success or failure of the drug court program in Pinellas county bears watching as does the overall program in the state (only 48 people in Pinellas were enrolled as of June 2010 last year). However, the larger questions is how does FAST pick its programs.  Are they determining if these are good programs or are they being asked to support the programs by other parties?  Are they evaluating the program for success or failure?  Certainly, there is little to no discussion at any FAST forum as to the efficacy or problems with these programs and that is unfortunate (I have worked in the FAST structure).

The best question is this.  What can FAST do better to help curb drug abuse and addiction in Pinellas County.  Certain with 38 churches and over 3,000 people who attend the Nehemiah assembly, there are ample human resources for the task.  People could serve as mentors to youth who are at risk for drug use or falling in with the wrong crowd. They could work through the church to bring more kids off the streets and into good programs like Boys and Girls Club, sports, Boy Scouts and the like.  They could raise money privately to fund private addition recovery programs.

It is far too “FAST and easy” to show up to a few meetings and latch on to a program on a narrow list of options to support. The harder job is to do the slow and difficult work of integrating into the community and helping people on an individual basis.  One-on-one action is a great way for church members to demonstrate their Christianity and spread the word of Christ and his message for a moral life to those who are living in darkness.  It is also far more effective than multi-million government programs that produce little results and hurt the economy by draining tax dollars into large bureaucracies.

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2 Replies:

  1. David McKalip

    Tom, thanks for your thoughts. As you have pointed out, being involved is the best way to improve and organization. I have become involved with FAST over the last year and am working for change to help them adopt better projects, add private action and open up the decision making process to all.

    I too am dismayed by claims of success that are not so accurate. For instance, there was a claim that they were able to get the Early Learning Coalition to move more funding to low income households for VPK. A discussion with their senior staff indicates that is a bit of an inaccurate boast.

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