Treatment Rather Than Punishment

Tragically, another person was senselessly killed while taking a walk after dinner. His death was allegedly caused by a convicted drunk driver who was awaiting trial on a second DWI and was driving with a ...

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Tragically, another person was senselessly killed while taking a walk after dinner. His death was allegedly caused by a convicted drunk driver who was awaiting trial on a second DWI and was driving with a suspended driver's license.

Msgr. Bill Costello was a seventy-nine year old retired pastor who was well loved by his people. People responded to his compassionate heart, his warmth and his humanity. When word spread that Fr. Bill was killed by an alleged drunk driver, almost everyone who was asked to comment on the circumstances of his tragic passing stated that he would have urged forgiveness and expressed concern for the perpetrator. He would have advocated for compassion and understanding rather than punishment and more laws.

How refreshing to hear such wonderful stories about a man who spent his life serving the needs of others. I wonder, if Msgr. Costello had lived, would he have been pleased with the reaction of the political community around his unfortunate death.

Candidly, he would be disgusted. He would have urged compassion, treatment and program. He would have reminded everyone that the woman in question still has dignity as a person and deserves to be respected. He would not be happy with all the renewed talk of more laws and stricter punishments. He would be advocating treatment, not punishment.

In the past twenty years, we have changed our approach and response to drunk driving accidents and fatalities. In the early 80's, if you were stopped by a police officer for a drinking and driving offense, more often than not, it was not treated as a crime, but rather an error in judgment. Depending on your neighborhood and your condition, the officer would drive you home and not arrest you.

Over the years, the number of fatalities around drinking and drugging has grown. The increase in deaths and escalating reckless behavior has promoted government to respond with increased punitive measures. Although governmental statistics seem to support a decrease in DWI fatalities due to the increased penalties, many of us in the field see the problem of alcohol abuse and illegal drug use increasing.

Being more punitive is not going to protect the addicted person or us. Building bigger prisons and imposing longer sentences is only a waste of valuable funds already in short supply. Ultimately, it will only postpone the addict from further acting out, since treatment for the most part is not an alternative to incarceration.

For the most part, alcoholics, drug addicts and drug dealers are caught in a very complicated circumstance that is related more to illness then criminal behavior. Unfortunately, we tend to look at addictive behavior and its' variables, when they cross certain lines, as criminal acts that need to be punished more often than not by confinement.

Some would support that confinement could be good because they would not have access to drugs and alcohol. However, sad but true, many of our prisoners have unique access to the very substances that landed them in jail.

Responding to the drug addict and alcoholic is complicated at best. Too many addictive persons are in denial, even when first arrested. We live in a society that condones so many reckless behaviors.

Reasonable drinking is considered an acceptable social behavior. Even occasional drunkenness is seen as tolerable, as long as it does not lead to reckless behavior and does not impair reasonable living.

When the issue of teenage drinking emerges, many adults believe it is a rite of passage to adulthood, so they tolerate or endure their teenager drinking as long as they don't drink and drive. When pressed on the issue and the fact that it is illegal, the response is often, "they are going to drink anyway and if they are responsible, what is the big deal?"

That ambivalent attitude is also applied to the use of marijuana and certain prescription medications and steroids.

Too many people know little or nothing about addiction, never mind pharmacology and its' impact on our body chemistry. Our approach in school education seems to be minimalistic and ambivalent. Many schools have rather clear regulations around student behavior and their illegal drug and alcohol use. However similar, the criminal justice system's response is punitive, if there is a response at all. Students are usually suspended. Some districts will have a superintendent's hearing; other districts that are more courageous might mandate a drug-alcohol evaluation and use the results to work in a positive manner with the student.

If we want the next generation to be different, our schools have to step up and address the issues of addiction in a totally new way. We have to look at how we educate students about social choices. We have to re-think our response to non-compliant students. We must become more treatment rather than punishment oriented.

One area that is disastrous, especially for high school and college age students who come back to school after being in residential treatment is that they receive little or no support. Most students return to the very environments on and off campus that have enabled and supported their addictive behavior.

We need to identify recovering students early on. Our support staffs need to be trained to support this growing number of students. Opportunities for special homerooms, school sponsored support groups and twelve step groups should be seriously considered. We don't want to set these students who are trying to abstain and stay sober up for failure. Instead of looking at addiction and treatment as an infectious disease, we should be seeing it more as a fact of life that does not have to cripple or impair someone for life.

Msgr. Costello's unfortunate death has caused a lot of conversation around addiction and how to treat it. Hopefully, the conversation will continue and we will try to think outside the box and not respond to this lethal social issue merely with more laws that are not equally applied to all offenders. Let's not build bigger jails and impose longer sentences. Let's acknowledge that the problem is much more complicated and somewhat symptomatic to our culture. Let's look for more life giving ways to address these issues.

The woman who allegedly killed Msgr. Costello already had a DWI conviction and a second DWI pending. It was said in the press that prior to her arrest she had tried to get help for addiction, but was put on a waiting list.

If that is fact, then Msgr. Costello's death is even more tragic. However, what is even more disturbing is that in the last few years, in part thanks to managed care and societal denial, treatment opportunities for people who need intensive residential care have become less and less available.

Those who have reasonable insurance are not even guaranteed that they will get the inpatient care that their treatment professionals say they need.

The waiting lists for treatment are endless. Too many people literally die in the street waiting to get in. For the decreasing number who get treatment, the after care piece which is key, is largely not available. This is the newly recovering person's surest ticket to relapse.

The woman responsible for Msgr. Costello's premature death is someone's mother, wife, daughter and friend. Her life is worth something. She has a chance at redemption, if we care enough to do things differently. Don't we owe it to Msgr. Costello who spent his life making a difference for others?