Lament of a former Sacramento drug warrior

Treatment opportunities, not incarceration, are what’s needed to restore hope and save lives

Milo Fitch addresses the Sacramento Employer Forum in 2014, when he was still with the county Sheriff’s Department.

Milo Fitch addresses the Sacramento Employer Forum in 2014, when he was still with the county Sheriff’s Department.

Photo courtesy of the California Prison Industry Authority

Milo Fitch is the chief of workforce development for the California Prison Industry Authority.

We first heard of the war on drugs in 1971, when President Richard Nixon declared drug abuse “public enemy No. 1” during a press conference. This 46-year conflict is yet another war in which we haven’t attained the results we hoped to achieve.

I was a soldier in the war on drugs. I spent 33 years with the Sacramento County Sheriff’s Department, six of those years as a sergeant in the Narcotics/Gang Division, where our mission was to arrest as many people as possible for drug-related offenses. Our mission had no regard for outcomes, other than prison as the solution.

We now realize that arresting and imprisoning is not the solution to end drug addiction.

This war has had a tremendous impact on families. We lead the world in the number of people incarcerated with some 2.2 million locked up. Statistics estimate nearly half of those in prison or on parole and probation are in for a drug offense. Even if their arrests or commitments are not for drug offenses, we know from the two-decade Arrestee Drug Abuse Monitoring study that between 62 percent and 86 percent of the men tested positive for at least one illegal drug at the time of arrest.

Since 1999, the number of overdose deaths involving opioids has quadrupled. From 2000 to 2015, more than half a million people died from drug overdoses. Ninety-one Americans die every day from opioid overdoses. That is about two-and-a-half times as many as die from gun violence. The cost to humanity is far too great to ignore.

Allow me to tell just one story. While overseeing corrections for the Sheriff’s Department, I had a well-respected physician who became addicted to Oxycontin. It came to our attention when an investigation revealed he was writing prescriptions for a significant amount of Oxycontin for his mother to several different pharmacies. We learned through the investigation the Oxycontin was actually for him.

He ultimately was convicted and given probation and had his medical license suspended. While on probation, he violated the terms and was sentenced to one of the facilities where he had previously overseen medical care.

A short time after his release, we heard the tragic news that he had passed away from an accidental overdose. He was one of those 91 Americans who die every day from an opioid overdose.

Like all commodities—drugs are no different—there is a supply side and a demand side. Government has focused all its efforts on the supply side. Because that’s what we do. We fight wars. We suit up and declare the “bad” guys will be defeated. Until very recently, no efforts were being made to deal with the demand side. This means treatment instead of guns, a peaceful approach over war.

Late in my career, as I promoted through the ranks to chief deputy of corrections, I had the flexibility to implement different strategies to deal with substance abuse. Among the many rehabilitative programs we implemented, we saw real changes and hopes restored.

I retired from the department and am now proudly serving as the chief of workforce development for the California Prison Industry Authority.

Most know CalPIA for producing license plates, but we are much more than that. We employ about 6,500 offenders in our Operations Division and nearly 400 in career technical education courses.

We have 28 different enterprises, eight different career technical education courses and produce over 1,500 products and services. But our No. 1 product is an offender who never returns to prison.

To that end, we recently partnered with the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation on a Substance Use Disorder Treatment course. The course offers CalPIA-assigned offenders with assessed treatment needs the opportunity to participate half-time in CalPIA assignments and the other half in evidence-based treatment programs that promote positive social behavior, as well as the skills necessary to avoid relapse and to integrate successfully back into the community.

All participants who complete the program will be assigned a transitional counselor to plan for post-incarceration treatment. The participants who complete the five-month program are also eligible for “milestone credits,” which means time off their sentences as incentives for positive behavior. We are proud to say we are already operational at six prisons and working toward more.

We are a great nation held back by how we handle substance abuse. Some cite law enforcement as the problem, but I believe that we can lead the charge to the solution. It’s true that it requires a paradigm shift. But this 33-year veteran of the Sheriff’s Department is proof that hearts and minds can change.

With drug treatment, we’re asking people who are struggling with serious issues to make major changes in every part of their lives. The least we can do is to change enough to recognize their achievements and respect them as human beings.