Tuesday, June 25, 1996
What's real cost to us of drug crimes?

BY LAURA PULFER
The Cincinnati Enquirer

Graduation ceremonies. It's hot, really hot, and the auditorium is jammed with people in their good clothes.

A man, beautifully dressed, resolutely scorns the heat, keeping his jacket on and his tie knotted. His wife, moments earlier, has brushed their son's shaggy hair from his forehead before he takes his place with the other graduates, all ''proudly recovering'' addicts of drugs or alcohol.

It feels just like a real graduation. Only better, giddier. Because it is life or death.

Then the Grand High Pharmaceutical Magistrate is introduced, and the crowd goes wild - on their feet, woofs, cheers, whistles, mad applause. This is Judge Deidra Hair, who sentenced them, then hounded them with judicial attention for a year. She presides over Hamilton County's first drug court, which supposes that addicts need treatment more than jail.

Judicial reality check

Court-supervised drug treatment means that these graduates also have been treated to regular doses of Judge Hair. She is not your basic bleeding heart.

For instance, an addict once told her tearfully, ''I just want to get my life back.''

''Who told you to say these stupid things?'' the judge asked. ''What part do you want back? The part in the penitentiary? On the streets?'' A new life is what they need, and 45 of them have found it.

Another said in her court: ''I was with the wrong people.'' Silence, as the air is sucked from the room by others who have been in the program long enough to know she's too smart for that one. They know what her answer will be.

And it is. ''You are the wrong people.'' Laughter. They knew she'd say that. And that she is right. Of course she is - they taught her. And they surely love this judge. I will confess right now that I like her, too - well enough to have sent a singing chicken to her courtroom on her birthday. Just so you know.

''She was impressed with me before I was impressed with myself,'' Karla Phillips, the class valedictorian, tells the crowd. The young woman holds a poster of her arrest mug shot. Dead eyes, slack mouth and matted hair are in stark contrast to tonight's beautiful, poised Karla.

Milling around the edge of the stage are an assortment of mismatched babies and adults. White women with black babies. Black women with white ones. Some men. As the women exit, they're handed the right kid. It's just friends, minding one another's children.

This is, says the judge, a community that goes beyond class or race or age. ''Who they are and who they've been doesn't matter after a while.'' They have a common enemy. Addiction.

Many of the women have been arrested for prostitution. ''After they sell the stereo and everything else they own to get drugs, that's all they have left,'' the judge says.

An emotional appeal

Later, I wished I had run back immediately to the office to tell you about this night. Maybe if I had, I could have figured out a way to let you know what it felt like there, why programs like these are how we should be spending some of our public money.

But it was late, and I was tired and wrung out. It was an emotional evening.

Now I have let the opportunity pass for an emotional appeal, so I'll settle for one that's more cerebral. John Dowlin, a Hamilton County commissioner, says alternatives to jail can save us money and cut down on crime. He is a serious man. As far as I know, he has never once sent a singing chicken to anybody's court.

He and the other commissioners are asking Hamilton County voters to approve another half-cent-on-a-dollar sales tax increase, including $7.8 million a year earmarked for 536 jail beds. He probably went along with it because $3 million also is designated for jail alternatives like this one.

To figure out whether it makes more sense to lock people up or to try to keep them out of jail, you could total the cost of 45 lifetime criminals. Take the number of jail beds they use over a lifetime, add the cost to their victims, then multiply by the number of people in this audience. Kids, parents, spouses.

Then we can really calculate how much it's worth.

Laura Pulfer's column appears in The Enquirer Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays. Call 768-8393 or fax at 768-8340. She can be heard Monday mornings on WVXU (91.7 FM) and as a regular commentator on National Public Radio's Morning Edition.