A well-meaning policy to slow the flood of low-level marijuana offenders into Arizona prisons has instead been siphoning money away from people busted for pot possession to enrich a handful of private citizens, the Phoenix New Times recently reported.
Since 1990, Maricopa County has operated a diversionary program for people facing prison over minor possession offenses. The state’s most populous county outsources the drug treatment alternative to a private outfit called the Treatment Assessment Screening Center (TASC), which ”won” a no-bid contract to be the exclusive provider of drug treatment alternatives to prosecution back in 1989.
When someone arrested for drug possession is facing trial in Maricopa County, prosecutors often offer TASC’s mix of addiction treatment and urinalysis testing as an alternative to prison and a criminal record. Such systems have long been touted as a key tool in dismantling the mass incarceration system in America.
But Maricopa doesn’t pay TASC’s bills. Individual citizens desperate to stay out of a cell do. TASC wouldn’t tell the New Times what a typical participant pays for her freedom, but a local defense attorney said the total bill often runs as high as $1,300. Arizona gives people an extra incentive to shell out that money, too: It is one of the few remaining states where a drug conviction means losing access to food stamps and welfare benefits for life.
The county refers thousands of marijuana offenders to TASC each year, generating millions of dollars in revenue for the non-profit organization. The system, which one former participant described as “government-run, taxpayer-funded legal extortion,” has been kind to those in charge of running it.
Former TASC CEO Barbara Zugor made more than $4.2 million in total compensation from 2000 through her retirement in 2014, tax documents for the non-profit show. Her total compensation – which includes rent payments from the company, as she co-owns the building where it has its headquarters – hovered between $400,000 and half a million dollars per year for the last six years she held the job.
Zugor’s husband works in a senior position at TASC as well, though his earnings never came close to matching hers. The couple’s combined haul from their monopoly over drug diversion treatment payments approaches the $5.5 million mark over the same period.
The vast majority of that money came out of the pockets of people whose only offense was having a small amount of marijuana. While other drug possession crimes also funnel paying customers into TASC’s doors, roughly 80 percent of people who participate in the system ended up there because of a pot bust according to the New Times’ review.
Douglas Kramer replaced Zugor as CEO a year before her retirement, and defended his predecessor’s compensation to the paper by saying she “dedicated her life to the TASC cause of bridging the gap between criminal justice and substance-abuse treatment systems.”
The idea to merge those two systems has been around for over a quarter-century and exploded in popularity in recent years. Drug courts and diversionary treatment programs now see about 120,000 defendants nationwide each year according to Pacific Standard. But many of the promises of the idea have not come true, according to the Drug Policy Alliance, in large part because the compassionate alternative court system represented by groups like TASC still exists alongside prohibition policies toward narcotics that place criminal concerns over health concerns.
TASC’s contract with Maricopa County is up in February. With a statewide ballot measure that would legalize recreational cannabis and destroy the firm’s primary revenue stream pending this November, the group has not yet put in a bid to renew the deal.
By Alan Pyke - Think Progress/Jan. 27, 2016