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Budget ax falls on drug treatment programs

The $7-million in cuts will make it harder than ever to get court-ordered treatment, local officials say.

Published September 10, 2003

Hundreds of drug offenders across Pinellas and Pasco counties will find it more difficult to get court-ordered drug treatment after budget cuts ordered by the state in recent days, treatment providers say.

Operation PAR, Pinellas-Pasco's largest drug treatment provider, is cutting 60 beds from its 195-bed residential treatment program and making cuts in outpatient counseling programs potentially affecting nearly 650 drug abusers.

The nonprofit agency is among 31 providers across the state coping this week with $7-million in budget cuts by the Florida Department of Corrections that some say makes getting court-ordered drug treatment harder than ever.

Cuts also affect Hillsborough drug-treatment providers, including that county's largest, the Drug Abuse Comprehensive Coordinating Office Inc. in Tampa. It's cutting 25 out of 200 residential treatment beds.

Officials there do not anticipate cuts in the number of people receiving outpatient treatment.

"It's devastating," said Nancy Hamilton, chief operating officer of Operation PAR, which is faced with a $900,000 budget shortfall. "More people are going to go to prison because treatment isn't available. Or they'll be on the streets without treatment. These cuts are hitting bone."

The Corrections Department began notifying shocked providers on Friday that they would have to immediately implement broad budget cuts in residential treatment programs that vary by agency.

The Corrections Department also said outpatient counseling programs would soon be on a self-pay basis rather than the state footing the bill. For some offenders, that means paying as much as $60 a week to get drug counseling.

Corrections Department officials say the cuts are inevitable given the state's current budget crisis. But DOC officials gave no immediate explanation about why the cuts are coming now, two months after the beginning of the state's fiscal year.

"We've been working for two months on how to fairly distribute the cuts statewide," Corrections Department spokesman Sterling Ivey said on Tuesday. "There's not a lot we can do." Ivey said the Corrections Department would ask lawmakers later this year to bring drug treatment budgets back to fiscal year 2000 levels, though prospects for success are uncertain.

Operation PAR has eliminated all outpatient counseling in Pasco, forcing drug offenders to travel to Pinellas or do without, Hamilton said.

Others seeking treatment in Pinellas are now being turned away for lack of money, she said.

"It's obviously cheaper to treat people in the community than to just build more prison beds," said Mary Lynn Ulrey, CEO of Drug Abuse Comprehensive Coordinating Office Inc. "I'm not sure everyone politically agrees with that."

What this means for criminal defendants ordered to undergo treatment, yet unable to find a spot in a program, depends on judges.

"It's a recipe for disaster," said Pinellas-Pasco Public Defender Bob Dillinger. "People with addictions cannot overcome the problem on their own. They need treatment."

Dillinger said some will have to remain in jail, facing longer waits to get a space in a residential treatment program. Others will be on the street without treatment or simply sentenced to prison if treatment on the outside is unavailable.

"If people are back on the streets without treatment, they're likely to reoffend," Dillinger said.

Pinellas County's drug court has as many as 2000 drug offenders under supervision at any one time. Circuit Judge Lauren Laughlin said she fears the net result will be that many will face a longer jail stay.

"We're trying to figure out how to make this work," she said.

Many providers say they also will be forced to lay off employees. Operation PAR said it has already laid off two people. Ultimately, 19 positions will be impacted, though Hamilton said attrition or reassignment may prevent further layoffs.

"Time and time and time again, we've seen that treatment is a viable alternative to incarceration," said Paul Norris, director of housing and corrections at Goodwill Industries, a treatment provider in Hillsborough and Pinellas.

Norris said Goodwill is cutting 12 of 60 beds in its Pinellas residential treatment program, though Hillsborough programs have different funding sources and are unaffected.

"One can only imagine," he said, "what will happen to the people who can't get help."

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