Julia O'Malley

Julia O'Malley writes a general interest column about life and politics in Anchorage and around Alaska. She grew up in Anchorage and has worked at the ADN on and off as a columnist and reporter since 1996. She came back full time as a reporter in 2005.

As a reporter, she covered the court system and wrote extensively about life in Anchorage, including big changes in the city's ethnic and minority communities.

In 2008, she won the Scripps-Howard Foundation's Ernie Pyle award for the best human-interest writing in America. She has also written for the Oregonian, the Juneau Empire and the Anchorage Press.

E-mail her at jomalley@adn.com.

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When jails are full of addicts

Outside of the emotional cost of addiction, it also costs a lot of public money from police, to lawyers, to probation officers, to social workers to emergency rooms.

As I reported today's story and others in the series, I asked corrections officials, clinicians and other people involved with Alaska's criminal justice system what percentage of inmates and defendants had substance abuse issues. The numbers I got ranged from 60 to 90 percent.

One study I found began in the 1960s with incarcerated heroin addicts showed that they have very high rate of health problems and death. It also showed that they tend to use a large amount of public resources with repeated incarcerations, hospital visits and other public assistance. Even with treatment, the relapse rate was very high.

Increasing access to treatment for inmates and people leaving jail is one way states decrease recidivism and the cost to the public, but nationally only about 10 percent of that population gets treatment. And heroin addiction is perhaps the most difficult addiction to conquer. Here's a chart that shows heroin addicts, even in treatment, are more likely to die than any other type of addict. Here's another chart that shows that most addicts in treatment have attempted to get clean at least five times. (Both charts are from the Substance Abuse and Mental Heath Treatment Administration)

Alaska's jails are the largest provider of mental health services and likely drug and alcohol detox in the state. Jails offer a very limited substance abuse treatment program, and it's mainly for inmates with longer sentences. At Hiland Mountain, many inmates are like Kristin Alexander, cycling in and out with short sentences and no access to treatment outside of a 12-step meeting.

What's the best way to reduce the cost of addiction on the public? Should Alaska offer more treatment to people in jail?

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