A Voice from the Field – Crime, Addiction, and Second Chances

Published in the Fall 2007 issue of SSA Magazine

By Sasha Abramsky

Pamela Rodriguez grew up in rural northern Minnesota, the oldest of four kids. Her parents split when she was a young child, and her mother raised the children alone. They were poor—Pam's mother had re-enrolled in college to study to be a teacher, and for a while, until the teaching qualification came through and her mother got a job teaching in the southern part of the state, the family relied on public assistance.

The experience taught the young Pam that government programs, when run well, can make a difference in people's lives. "I think we have forgotten what government is for, the role of government, and what government can do and should be doing for us," she argues. It also left her with the steadfast belief that sometimes all that is needed for a person to flourish is a helping hand.

Since shortly after graduating from Crown Family School with a master's degree in 1982, Rodriguez has put that belief into action at TASC, Inc., where she now serves as executive vice president. TASC, which stands for Treatment Alternatives for Safe Communities, is a 31-year-old national organization that helps get substance abuse treatment to those ensnared in the criminal justice system and designs and advocates for model programs.

When launched, TASC was a barebones operation in Illinois and a handful of other states, pushing the then-radical notion that drug addiction and crime were linked problems and that institutions like rehab programs, community mental health centers, and halfway houses might offer the best solutions. Today, TASC is a multi-million dollar institution that connects drug addicts to treatment programs with chapters in more than half the states in the nation. The group is at the forefront of the movement to decriminalize addiction—though not to legalize drugs regularly pushing cutting-edge ideas into practice.

Rodriguez is a deeply religious woman, a Lutheran, and her religion has, in many ways, guided her career trajectory. "It's important to have second chances," she explains. "Being hopeful, believing that change is possible, that people are good." In many ways, this is not just her philosophy, but a guiding principle for the whole TASC movement. Addicts, TASC believes, the nation. The group is at the forefront of the movement to decriminalize addiction—though not to legalize drugs—regularly pushing cutting-edge ideas into practice.

Rodriguez is a deeply religious woman, a Lutheran, and her religion has, in many ways, guided her career trajectory. "It's important to have second chances," she explains. "Being hopeful, believing that change is possible, that people are good." In many ways, this is not just her philosophy, but a guiding principle for the whole TASC movement. Addicts, TASC believes, retain their humanity as well as their potential to recover and to do good things with their lives. "TASC recommends dealing with addiction as a disease and a public health problem," Rodriguez says simply, "and not a criminal justice problem."

As a high school teenager, Rodriguez says she befriended all sorts, from jocks to druggie kids struggling to stay afloat. "I saw in them all something worthwhile," she recalls. "And I felt there was a lot of prejudice against people who were different, who didn't have advantages. I really identified with people who were struggling to fit in, to make it, to overcome obstacles."

After doing her undergraduate work at Bemidji State University in Minnesota, Rodriguez worked in the juvenile justice system for a couple years. Then, wanting to pursue a career in social work, she enrolled as a graduate student at Crown Family School in 1980. She says that professors like Bob Coates, who taught her how to evaluate data, and Karen Teigeser, an expert in systemsthinking, imparted lessons that have remained with her over nearly three decades. "And Chuck Shireman, [a criminal justice expert], he always believed in people's ability to change," she says nostalgically.

Now aged 51, Pam Rodriguez has two sons of her own and lives in the Chicago suburb of Elk Grove Village. At TASC, her days are a mix of meetings with policy makers and national treatment experts, work on program management, and ensuring that services are of a high quality. Several days out of the month she's on the road, visiting drug treatment programs, and attending meetings and conferences. "Frankly, I'm a problem solver," she says. "I'm the leader, the director."

"She never loses sight of why we do the work we do," says her friend and erstwhile colleague Leslie Balonick, now senior vice president at WestCare Foundation, a drug treatment organization that operates in seven states and the U.S. Virgin Islands. "Pam's one of the people in the room who helps keep people focused on reality—in terms of what's going on out there in the drug culture and the courts. She takes a practical, commonsensical approach."

Illinois TASC employs more than 400 people, nearly 100 of whom are full-time case managers, working directly with clients. TASC staffers trawl regular criminal courts, drug courts (courts set up in several states specifically to deal with drug offenders and to look for alternatives to incarceration), county jails, and state prisons looking for addicted offenders whom they judge, through use of sophisticated assessment tools, to be good candidates. For example, if a defendant's case is tied to substance abuse—if the crime was committed to support a drug habit, for instance—TASC has found that there is more likelihood of rehabilitation.

Ten years ago, TASC had about 18,000 clients a year, according to Rodriguez. Today, it has about 30,000, more than half of whom are from the Chicago area. Much of the growth is due to TASC's relationship with courts, sheriffs, and police departments— where personnel use TASC to steer offenders into treatment rather than into the regular court system and then imprisonment—and parole systems that turn to the state chapters for help in dealing with addicted clients in the period following their release from prison.

For example, the Cook County Diversion Program, an innovative program that moves non violent first offenders into drug education and criminal justice education classes rather than straight into jail or prison, sends about 4,000 men and women to TASC a year. Of these offenders, a rather impressive nine in 10 complete the program and see their charges dropped. And of these, fully 85 percent stay arrest-free for the three years following their completion of the program. In comparison, less than half of the prisoners released in Illinois in 2002 stayed out of jail over the next three years, according to the Illinois Department of Corrections, including those arrested for drug crimes or property crimes.

TASC's allies argue that the approach works well for everyone: Addicts get the help they need in specialized treatment settings. The courts don't have to send so many petty offenders to prison. Taxpayers save money, since even the best drug treatment programs cost less per person per year than do prisons (A white paper by TASC release earlier this year found that Illinois could save more than $220 million annually with a more aggressive drug-treatment program). And communities are made safer because large numbers of addicts are getting better, rather than simply being warehoused behind bars, released with all the same problems they had on the day they were first incarcerated.

Unlike other similar organizations such as Delancey Street in San Francisco, and Fortune in New York, TASC doesn't provide drug treatment services directly to its clients. Instead, it links them up with licensed treatment programs in the community, ranging from intensive drug treatment communities to mental health services and job training. About 150 such programs now work with TASC clients. In the last few years an ancillary support network of another 150 or so community groups has developed to work with TASC clients after they complete their formal rehabilitation programs, making sure they stay on the straight and narrow for the long haul.

"We're advocates for clients. We're intermediaries between systems. We match them to appropriate care and appropriate levels of treatment," Rodriguez says.

"It's a win-win to have these collaborations between systems," argues Mary Shilton, the Alexandria, Virginia-based director of the national consortium of TASC programs. "TASC is kind of entrepreneurial. It's a bridge between systems, long-term advisory groups, and projects. TASC is there at the systems' level, getting people to sit down and problem solve, bringing community resources out."

In an era of criminal justice policies that have been largely defined by rather simplistic "lock 'em-up" messages and politicians overeager to play to a fearful crowd, TASC's steadfast focus on second chances—and its success in that approach—have stood out. Now, as the get-tough movement around crime and punishment has stalled somewhat in recent years and with electorates increasingly reluctant to fund an ever-larger correctional infrastructure, TASC has become an influential voice when it comes to innovative sanctions for drug-addicted criminals.

Rodriguez convenes discussions between top state politicians on drug policy and is generally thought of as a voice of reason, able to cut to the chase in complex debates and with all the leadership skills needed to keep a large organization running smoothly. She gives testimony at Congressional hearings on crime and drug addiction and was recently made a member of the federal Coordinating Council on Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention. TASC also has strong working relationships with large institutions around the country such as Texas Christian University and the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.

"What TASC does is a reasonable alternative to the all-or-nothing approach," says Shilton, referring to her belief that the 'Just Say No, War on Drugs' philosophy has signally failed. "If the all-or-nothing approach only feeds back into the use of drugs, then the reasonable approach is you have to do something else to break the cycle."

"TASC comes at substance abuse from a social justice mindset and recognizing that our criminal justice system has turned into our safety net. It's where people who've failed in other systems land," Rodriguez explains. "But we're human beings, for Pete's sake. We're all flawed, but hope springs eternal. You have to believe it can be better."