Pennsylvania Drug Court Implemented to Handle Boom in Addicted Female Prisoners

By Paul Gaita 06/26/15

Washington County aims to treat the number of female addicts in prison, which has quadrupled in the last decade.

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The number of women prisoners in southwestern Pennsylvania’s Washington County has quadrupled in the last decade, with a majority incarcerated for crimes directly related to addiction to heroin and other substances.

To combat this increasing number of cases, especially those involving pregnant women with drug addiction issues, the county established a drug court in 2005 to provide long-term solutions beyond jail sentences and short-term inpatient treatment. The Washington County Restrictive Treatment Program is a probation-driven program for non-violent offenders with addiction issues who are over the age and residents of Washington County.

Group and individual counseling and frequent drug testing allow the participants to fully address the myriad of problems faced by opiate addicts without the additional punitive measure of jail time. “The best way to solve substance abuse and the related crimes is to invest in treatment,” said Nazgol Ghandnoosh, research analyst for The Sentencing Project, which aims to overhaul prison sentence guidelines.

Forty-three participants have successfully completed the Washington Country program since 2012, which is designed to assist 60 individuals at one time. Currently, the program is near capacity, with fewer than 10 openings for potential candidates.

The success of the Washington County program gives hope and new direction for the epidemic of heroin addiction in Pennsylvania. Statistics from the Center for Rural Pennsylvania in late 2014 show that 52,000 residents were in treatment for opioid addiction, with an additional 760,000 reporting addiction with no treatment.

A full 70% of Pennsylvania’s prison population is reportedly contending with substance abuse problems. The number of women entering state prison facilities remains a growing problem for many counties; Greene County jail Warden Harry Gillespie stated that his facility has help 119 female inmates in 2015 alone.

“Nineteen years ago, we would only have one or two,” Greene noted. “We have more and more females committing crimes to feed their addictions. They come in skin and bones. We detox them, try to get them on programs. When they leave, they look pretty good, but within three to six months, they are right back and looking [as before].”

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Paul Gaita lives in Los Angeles. He has contributed to the Los Angeles Times, Variety, LA Weekly, and The Los Angeles Beat, among many other publications and websites.