If you're reading this, chances are you're probably not among Dallas County's "Top 100 Serial Inebriates," the recently compiled list of some of the area's most hopeless alcoholics. These aren't the people who overindulge on a Saturday night and have to sleep it off in the drunk tank. These are the broken souls who drink to live and live to drink and often, a couple or three dozen times per year, wind up in jail as a result.
Okay, so Dallas has a lot of hopeless drunks. But why a list?
"There's just the core of folks who just continually get picked up for public intox," said Ron Stretcher, criminal justice director for Dallas County. Police find them on the street, bring them to the jail, and send them on their way with a ticket, at which point they go right back to drinking. A week or two later, they're back at the jail.
It's clear that the current system isn't working. From a purely monetary standpoint, it's a waste. Picking up drunks and driving them to jail is a waste of police time and resources and, though their time in jail is typically brief, they generally have underlying medical problems that require treatment and make their stays expensive. From a human perspective, it's clear that these people are in desperate need of support they're not getting.
Now, a paradigm shift is underway in Dallas. For years, cities like San Diego have taken an alternative approach to serial inebriates, focusing more on treatment than on punishment. Dallas County, in partnership with the city and a host of nonprofits, is now looking at doing the same. That's where the list comes in. It's an easy way to identify the people most in need of help, the ideal population on which to test the new approach.
Instead of jail, individuals picked up repeatedly for public intoxication will be enrolled in a four- to six-day medically supervised detox program through Homeword Bound. That will be followed by a residential substance abuse program, then a three- to six-month stint in transitional housing. Finally, they will be placed in permanent supportive housing. In the meantime, they will be linked up with Parkland's community health program for basic medical care.
There is still some discussion over how people will wind up in the system, whether of their own free will or through a court order.
"Clearly, our first goal is voluntary compliance," Stretcher said. "One of keys to treatment is people have got to be ready."
The new approach is expected to lessen the strain on taxpayers but isn't free. Psychological services and substance abuse treatment are paid for through a Medicaid-like program, while the city provides permanent supportive housing. One of the partners, Turtle Creek Manor, has a federal grant that will help cover treatment for two or three individuals per month.
Such a program has been successful in San Diego. Stretcher's hoping that success can be replicated here.