Great news! A very public about-face in potentially remedying our arcane and absurd mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent drug offenders.

From NYT: Obama Commutes Sentences for 8 in Crack Cocaine Cases

It was the first time retroactive relief was provided to a group of inmates who would most likely have received significantly shorter terms if they had been sentenced under current drug laws, sentencing rules and charging policies. Most will be released in 120 days. The commutations opened a major new front in the administration’s efforts to curb soaring taxpayer spending on prisons and to help correct what it has portrayed as inequality in the justice system.

In a statement, Mr. Obama said that each of the eight men and women had been sentenced under what is now recognized as an “unfair system,” including a 100-to-1 sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine offenses that was significantly reduced by the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010.

“If they had been sentenced under the current law, many of them would have already served their time and paid their debt to society,” Mr. Obama said. “Instead, because of a disparity in the law that is now recognized as unjust, they remain in prison, separated from their families and their communities, at a cost of millions of taxpayer dollars each year.”

esteban

Damian Esteban was just another thirtysomething hipster-looking teacher at the Williamsburg High School for Architecture and Design until he got called in for jury duty last fall… and was arrested for allegedly bringing 20 vials of heroin in a cigarette pack into the courthouse with him.

The misdemeanor criminal charges against Esteban were eventually dropped when he attended a one-day (one-day?!?) rehab program. But the damage had been done: he was fired from his teaching job as a result of the arrest and ensuing publicity.

Fast forward to this week, when Manhattan Supreme Court Judge Manuel Mendez ordered the NYC Department of Education to take Esteban back (or at least, overturned the DoE’s previous decision, I’m not clear which). Judge Medez stated that the firing was “unduly harsh… [and] excessive and shocking to this court’s sense of fairness.”

According to the New York Observer, Mayor Bloomberg was “not amused” by the court’s decision.

“We could not disagree more strongly with the judge’s decision to overturn an arbitrator’s ruling terminating a teacher for possessing 20 bags of heroin,” the mayor said in a statement this afternoon.

“The judge ruled that the termination ‘shocks the conscience,’ which shows a callous indifference to the well-being of our students,” he added. “That truly shocks the conscience and boggles the mind.”

What do you think? Should drug offenders (in this case, ones who haven’t been convicted of a crime) be allowed to teach children? And if not, does that mean we should institute random drug testing for schoolteachers — or do you think Esteban shouldn’t get his job back because of the sheer publicity of the case alone?

birth

A new study out of George Washington University School of Public Health finds that the number of births in the U.S. covered by Medicaid has risen again, from 40 percent of births in 2008 to 48 percent—nearly half of all births—in 2010.

WOW. Just WOW.

Did you know that? HOLY SHIT.

That 48 percent is especially shocking when you consider that the maximum income eligibility for Medicaid, at least here in Indiana, is extremely low: about $288 per month for a family of three. So basically, you have to be dirt poor to receive Medicaid. (Not even “kind of poor.” Really poor.)

Our state does give pregnant women the courtesy of free prenatal care under “presumptive eligibility,” but that doesn’t cover labor and delivery, which can run into the tens of thousands.

Now on to related first-world problems! My son had ear tube surgery about a month ago — it’s one of the most common surgical procedures for kids these days. An estimated one in five (insured?) children currently gets the procedure, which stops fluid from building up in the eardrum and lessens the occurrence of chronic ear infections.

Anyway, when we got the diagnosis, I Googled the typical cost of the surgery (because god knows the hospital/doctors sure won’t give you an estimate!) and came up with a $2,000 figure, give or take. That’s a lot, I thought, so thank goodness we have insurance that only requires a $150 surgery copay. Right? Right…?

Boy, was I wrong. On top of the $150, we received a bill for $250 a couple of weeks ago from the clinic our surgeon operates out of — apparently that was 15 percent of her fee, which we are on the hook for by the terms of our insurance policy, which covers 85 percent of “procedures.” (So… what was the $150 “surgery fee” for, again?)

Okay, I can swallow that, I guess.

But then, yesterday, I get a bill for $360 from the hospital where the surgery was performed — apparently they had billed my insurance company OVER FOUR THOUSAND DOLLARS for the surgery (would now be a good time to note that the procedure took all of ten minutes?), and naturally we are expected to pay a percentage of that astronomical sum.**

Ear tube insertions are probably the most expensive outpatient surgery you can have done in less than 15 minutes…It is pretty impressive to think that patients with high deductibles are quite often personally billed $2,000 or more despite the fact that the supply and material component of ear tube surgery costs are so low [$25 to $30 for a set of two tubes].

My husband nearly choked when I told him about this latest bill, which of course I’m going to call to contest and give the hospital and/or the insurance company hell about later today. “What the f*** is so frigging expensive about a frigging ten-minute-long procedure?” he rightly wanted to know. Seriously, you could hire Bon Jovi to play at your kid’s birthday party for an hourly rate of $12,000! (Well, maybe the Doobie Brothers…?)

I could only offer my semi-informed personal opinion that it’s precisely because health care is so ridiculously expensive that so many people default on these astronomical bills, causing hospitals to inflate their costs like steroid-crazed bodybuilders and leave middle-class, diligent, bill-paying people like us subsidizing the shortfall.

NOT FAIR. NOT FAIR. NOT FAIR. (Will Obamacare fix this? I sure hope so.)

All of which is to say… my social work professor showed us this short skit in class on Tuesday. BOY, WAS IT EVER RIGHT ON.

** Looking at the actual claim on my insurance company’s website, I can see they paid only about half of that, due to a “provider discount.” So hows about a “patient discount” for yours truly?

The Petit home was the scene of absolute brutality at the hands of two men.

The Petits were at home when they were subjected to unimaginable brutality and terror at the hands of two men, Joshua Komisarjevsky and Steven Hayes.

Here’s a tip: if by some chance you find yourself home alone (my 13-month-old son doesn’t really count because he’s no protection at all) on a dark and stormy night, do NOT, under any circumstances, watch the HBO documentary “The Cheshire Murders,” which chronicles the horrific and almost inexplicable 2007 home invasion that killed three members of a beautiful family in Cheshire, Connecticut.

Despite being a bona fide connoisseur of the true-crime documentary genre (surely, having watched every single episode of 48 Hours Mystery and Forensic Files qualifies me as such), and considering myself somewhat embarrassingly jaded about criminals and senseless criminal activity, I can say that the depiction of convicted murderers and all-around thugs Joshua Komisarjevsky and Steven Hayes haunted and tormented me all night long, and now well into the following morning. I almost had to sleep with the lights on.

As is the fashion these days, this is a documentary with a point of view. Filmmakers Kate Davis and David Heilbroner want to tell us that the Cheshire Police royally screwed up. They got the 911 call from the teller at the bank where Steven Hayes forced Jennifer Hawke-Petit to withdraw money about an hour before the house ended up engulfed in flames. They arrived at the Petit home a full half-hour before the fire started, and apparently just sat around in their squad cars scoping the place out and, I don’t know, eating doughnuts and drinking coffee, while Ms. Hawke-Petit was getting raped, strangled, and the girls were getting gasoline poured on them and were subsequently being burned alive.

And yes, the fact that the Cheshire Town Manager went on television shortly after the murders applauding the “courageous” efforts of the “rescue” team will make you want to claw his eyes out. As Hawke-Petit’s sister rightly points out, how much worse could it have gotten? The most heinous possible outcome was borne out. And is it really considered intrepid police work to “get the guys” when they’re right in front of your face, fleeing a burning home?

Needless to say, the Cheshire Police did not make anyone available to interview for this documentary.

The film also makes a pointed comment about the futility of the death penalty. The lone survivor of the attack, William Petit, is depicted as tragically misguided as he advocates for death sentences for Komisarjevsky and Hayes in order to exact a real sense of “justice.” (He’s not the only one — nearly every family member of both the victims and the murderers would like to see them dead.) But reality complicates any illusions of cut-and-dry justice. We learn that Hayes, at least, already wants to die. Automatic appeals will mean the case gets dragged out in perpetuity. And really, isn’t life in near-solitary confinement far worse than an early exit?

Anyway, for me, the most arresting part of this film was the depiction of Steven Hayes and Joshua Komisarjevsky, whom the filmmakers handled thoroughly and clinically — so unlike many other true-crime docs, where we never get to hear from the perpetrators’ families or hear their histories. Which is not to say that the depiction was sympathetic: though both men were sexually abused as children, we are made to understand that each was probably pathologically evil. After meeting in a halfway house while out on parole, Hayes and Komisarjevsky hatched this vicious plan in what was basically the inevitable conclusion to their life of brutality and almost complete amorality.

This was not a “home invasion gone wrong.” It was a mass torture-murder that will stun you with its deliberate viciousness and the hideous intentionality of its two perpetrators. Though both men had only ever been arrested for burglaries previously, it surprised no one, least of all their families, that they were capable of such depraved actions. These men were thugs through and through.

For Steven Hayes and Joshua Komisarjevsky, life was indeed ugly and brutal. The fact that they inflicted their sense of the world on the innocent Petit family, though, is an unimaginable tragedy — the kind that “justice” could probably never even attempt to remedy.

oral historyWell, the final episode of Intervention aired last night, and of course I cried and felt very sad, just as I expected I would. It’s been such a compelling and insightful and inspiring show for so many addicts (current and former), as well as family members and friends of addicts. Such a shame that the show has been supplanted by absolute trash like Duck Dynasty, but that’s the way it goes in the entertainment business, I suppose.

Anyway, I had to share this wonderful Buzzfeed piece, which is an “oral history” of the show from the perspective of the producers and interventionists Jeff VanVonderen, Candy Finnigan, Ken Seeley, and Seth Jaffe, as well as the subject of “everyone’s favorite episode,” former computer duster huffer Allison Fogarty, whose interview I’ve excerpted below. These compassionate, brave people are truly heroes for the work that they do, and I applaud their eight years of braving the cameras to bring the issue of addiction and recovery to the American consciousness. Thank you.

UPDATE: Vulture published another Intervention oral history today, which I initially thought was the same thing, but turns out to have different quotes. So here it is, it’s excellent as well!

Allison Fogarty: Jeff [VanVonderen] and my family had my cat taken away. My cat was the catalyst for me going to treatment. It was so easy for me to be mad at everyone, but my cat didn’t deserve any of this, so I spent the next day just hanging out in a bank because cameras can’t go in banks. It was stupid because every five minutes I would sober up again so it was hijinks after hijinks. I finally came home, and they stopped by and they were like, “This is your last chance, yadda, yadda,” and I was like, “Fuck off.” Then the next morning Jeff said, “We’re leaving, do you want to come with us?” And I just gave up and said, “OK, yeah, I guess so.”

VanVonderen: After we called animal protective services on Allison’s cat, and she agreed to go treatment, she wanted nothing to do with me.

Fogarty: At that point it wasn’t even that I wanted to get better, I just wanted to punish everyone else. Like, “I’m leaving forever!” We drove right to the airport.

VanVonderen: She has her little hoodie over her head, her cloak of shame. We get to the airport. And I’m purposely not talking to her ‘cause I don’t want to blow the gig — so I went to the gift shop and bought her a stuffed cat and I walked up to her, handed her the cat, and we didn’t say anything to each other the whole plane ride to rehab.

Fogarty: At rehab, word had gotten around to the staff and clients that I was being brought in by Intervention. So when I got there, one of the clients was like, “Oh, you’re the new girl from Intervention.” And I was like, “What the hell is Intervention?” The first night I was there, the clients showed me an episode of the show and I was like, “FUCK MY LIFE.” And that was the first time I ever saw an episode, my first day in rehab.

VanVonderen: Six months after taking Allison to rehab I got an email from her apologizing for being such “a dick” and thanking me and hoping I forgive her. I wrote her back and said of course, and I’m glad she’s doing good, and I asked how’s the cat doing in treatment. And she said, “Cat VanVonderen is doing really well.”

Fogarty: Obviously I’m grateful. I did the work and things turned out right. But it was a giant trauma. I wish I could have gotten to where I am without having to go through that experience. I don’t feel like things are 100% fixed with my family, and it’s embarrassing when I go on dates and the guy knows who I am. When I go out and people are like, “Oh my god, you’re that drug addict! That was the funniest hour of my life!” It happens a couple times a week. I still have 100% shame when that happens. But some people approach me in a really positive way, like this woman at Pinkberry started to sob next to me in line and she hugged me and told me that her brother saw my episode and it saved his life because he got into treatment. And I hugged her and said I was so glad, but it was still very awkward.

[Executive Producer] Dan Partland: Sometimes the tough part is after addicts get clean and the reruns come on and it’s traumatic for them. And when we learned of that, we would ask the network to suspend use of their episode, and they did that every time.

Fogarty: When my show is re-airing, someone from the show generally tells me they are re-airing. But there was a recent promo that featured my episode that I didn’t know about and I just cried and cried when I saw it. At this point, I just launched my own business and feel like, enough already, it’s been five years, I’ve done my time. I feel like it’s time to let me go.

lost girls

Yesterday I started reading Robert Kolker’s new book, Lost Girls: An Unsolved American Mystery. It’s a meticulously researched and truly engrossing look at the lives of four women who ended up murdered as a result of their work as Craigslist prostitutes. But more than that, it’s an account of their lives and what might have led them to such dangerous and ultimately fatal circumstances.

This is from Nina Burleigh’s review of the book for the New York Observer:

Theirs were the brutish lives of Americans born into the misery of economically and spiritually gutted small-town mid-Atlantic America. Their own mothers scraped and struggled to get by, working at Sears, casinos, Dunkin’ Donuts, motels. Fathers were absent. Grandparents, neighbors, foster parents stepped in to fill the care gap.

They suffered from domestic chaos, emotional problems, childhood abuse, unplanned pregnancies, bad boyfriends. The hallmark of their brief adult lives was the relentless pressure to bring in money to keep a roof over their own heads and the tiny heads of the babies they produced long before they were ready.

Each of them found a way to a modicum of financial stability through Craigslist, becoming “providers,” in john-speak—selling sex to make ends meet.

This is a car-crash of a story, but the most disturbing aspect is the way authorities couldn’t have cared less about these women. The inescapable impression one takes away from Lost Girls is that police rank Craigslist prostitutes somewhere below lost dogs.

Hard to watch? Yes.

A still from “Intervention.” It may be over, but the problem isn’t.

It’s a sad day in TV land, at least for me. Today marks the first of the five final episodes of A&E’s reality show Intervention. Since the show debuted in 2005, I can honestly say I’ve seen every single one of the two hundred or so episodes, some more than once.

A&E made the announcement about a month ago that Intervention was coming to a close this summer, but didn’t give a reason. True, the show’s premise (in which a documentary crew follows an addict around for a few days to chronicle the horrifying extent of his or her illness, then rounds up friends and family to stage an intervention and hopefully sends them to rehab) is unrelenting in its depressing documentation of its participants’ downward spiral from week to week. So perhaps formula fatigue was setting in for the network and crew. Perhaps declining ratings were an issue as well.

But given skyrocketing rates of overdoses, drug-related crime, and the critical need for addiction treatment in the U.S., I think the show should be kept on as a public service (though of course, such a thing doesn’t exist in television, “The More You Know” nonwithstanding). As an MSW student in addictions and mental health, spreading awareness about the topic and reducing stigma is something I feel passionately about.

I was just reading today, in a recent South Bend Tribune series, that heroin and opiate prescription drug-related arrests increased by 600 percent between 2008 and 2010 in LaPorte County, Indiana.

Did you catch that? SIX HUNDRED PERCENT.

Here’s an excerpt from the series, which has appeared in various incarnations in just about every single regional newspaper in this country over the past few years. (Here’s a link to the Denver Post‘s amazing contribution, which recently earned an Edward R. Murrow award.)

Just a few years ago, perhaps one or two heroin addicts per year walked through the doors of Life Treatment Centers, 1402 S. Michigan St., looking for help, said Deborah Smith, vice president for clinical services. About five years ago, the visits by heroin addicts increased to one or two per week, she said.

“In the last couple years, at least the last year and a half, we’re seeing about one (heroin addict) a day,” Smith said. “We probably serve about 1,000 people a year. I believe the epidemic with heroin and opiates is really taking over.”

John Horsley, director of addiction services at Oaklawn, said heroin addicts were a rarity at Oaklawn’s South Bend location when he started with the organization in May 2011. So rare, in fact, that some staff members would become uncomfortable when they encountered a heroin user who took the drug intravenously using a syringe, Horsley said. But in the past two years, heroin users have become so common that they now account for about 25 percent of the clients enrolled in substance abuse programs at Oaklawn, he said.

Horsley said he has seen weeks in which as many as four clients died of heroin overdoses while enrolled in Oaklawn treatment programs.

One could also make the argument, as I did in this paper I wrote for a media ethics class back in 2009, that Intervention exploits the privacy of its participants, all of whom are undoubtedly in a compromised mental state at the height of their addiction. On the flip side, though, there’s an awful lot of good that comes from documenting successful interventions (and there are many!) as well.

On a related note, this New York Times profile from last Sunday about Dr. Drew and his well-intentioned but poorly executed attempts to bring addiction into the forefront, via reality television, is definitely worth a read.

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