Unexplained gap impacts Kenai Peninsula rehab services

A state program that helps people convicted of drug and alcohol related crimes fight addiction says it’s seeing a decrease in court referrals for the cities of Homer and Kenai. But, local law enforcement reports there hasn’t been a significant drop in drug and alcohol related crime.

Alaska judges often refer people who commit misdemeanor alcohol or drug related crimes to the Alcohol Safety Action Program or ASAP. ASAP gives courts the option to send substance abusers to treatment instead of jail. Finnley M’Kenna with the ASAP office in Kenai says her office evaluates people and determines the best way to help them avoid ending up back in court.

“We screen clients and then refer them to local area treatment providers for earlier intervention and sometimes all the way up to residential treatment depending on what they need,” says M’Kenna.

M’Kenna says her clients either accept help, or they lose probation and take their chances in court again. But at the start of this year M’Kenna was convinced her office was getting less referrals than normal from the Homer and Kenai courts. She counted the referrals received between the 1st of January and the last day of August this year and compared that to the number of referrals received during the same period last year.

“From the Kenai court we’ve had a 37% decrease in referrals and from the Homer court we’ve had a 23% decrease. That’s pretty significant,” says M’Kenna.

M’Kenna says a decrease in referrals is supposed to be a sign that the amount of alcohol and drug related crime is dropping, but she doesn’t believe that’s the case.

“What we’re hearing from the community is substance abuse isn’t slowing down. Community members are seeing it to be more of a problem but we’re getting fewer referrals from the courts. So something is missing somewhere,” says M’Kenna.

Henry Novak is the Director of Cicada, the Cook Inlet Council on Alcohol and Drug Abuse. Cicada is a rehabilitation center that regularly takes on clients referred by ASAP. Novak is worried his office is missing out on a chance to help people who ASAP could steer into treatment.

“ASAP has been phenomenal for being able to give them a nudge and say, look you [have] to do this or, here’s what will happen. The court will be back in your life.’ That’s enough to make people [say], ‘I don’t want the court back in my life.’” explains Novak.

Cicada has offices in both Kenai and Homer and Novak says they get calls every day from people complaining about drug use and alcoholism in both areas. M’Kenna says she’s spoken to Kenai District Attorney Scott Leaders and the Kenai Court Clerk’s office about the drop in referrals, but so far they haven’t found an explanation.  According to the clerk’s office, the Alaska court system doesn’t track the number of misdemeanor convictions involving drugs and alcohol.

Also, Kenai Superior Court Judge Anna Moran said the court was, “unaware of any decrease in ASAP referrals and the court doesn’t normally monitor the number of referrals.”

Kenai District Attorney Scott Leaders did not return multiple requests for comment on this story and District Court Judge Margaret Murphy in Homer declined to comment. But, according to the Homer and Kenai Police Departments drug and alcohol related crime is not on the ropes by any means in their communities.

Homer Police Chief Mark Robl says his department has only seen a slight decrease in drug related crime.

“…approximately 5% lower numbers for this year versus 2014. Our alcohol related crimes are running almost neck and neck for both years.”

Kenai Police have also seen little to no change in the numbers for drug and alcohol arrests in the last year. If the number of offenders hasn’t fallen then the question is, ‘has something changed in the courts.’ M’Kenna is still waiting for that answer.

“If people are continuing to be arrested and convicted for misdemeanor charges what we’d like to do is see those referrals coming back to ASAP. With the referrals that we do get from the court, we do a really good job of making sure people get the interventions or the treatment or education they need. If we don’t have those referrals from the court we can’t really do anything.”

Novak says when ASAP is used effectively the program not only helps people turn their lives around, it also removes the extra cost of housing those people in jail cells.