For decades, drug addicts have been arrested and jailed only to return to the street as addicted – and dangerous - as before. Drug dealers have been given increasingly longer sentences and helped make prisons one of America's growth industries. Yet new dealers take their places and addiction remains widespread.
This is a story about how the Philadelphia police has come to the same conclusion and decided to try something different, Dan Rather reports.
60 Minutes II was there the day this extraordinary operation began. Undercover police arrested some addicts on the street. They fit no stereotype – men and women, black and white, suburbanites and street people.
The idea for this novel approach came from Sylvester Johnson, recently named Philadelphia police commissioner. Before his appointment, Johnson was the city's general in charge of the drug war. After years of reviewing battlefield statistics, he decided that his city was losing the fight. Johnson's idea how to improve things: offer drug treatment to addicts not when they go to court or after they get out of jail, but as soon as they are arrested. On the spot, give addicts the choice of jail or treatment.
If interested, they are immediately taken across a parking lot into a van to meet the unlikely looking man whom police have picked to make the offer: the humble-sounding Rev. Henry Wells, who runs the One Day At A Time drug program.
"I am not a police, I am not working for the police, I am working for you. I am on your side," he told one addict.
Who is Wells? He describes himself: "Rev. Wells is a man - close to 70 years old that was strung out on drugs and alcohol for many many years."
"I am a recovering drug addict. A heroin shooter. A pill dropper. Name it, I did it." He says he once shot someone, and was on death row in Florida.
He says he has no academic degree, only a "street academic degree." He doesn't have a divinity degree either.
He says the best way to reach those who are brought to him is to talk about what will happen if they keep using drugs: "What's most likely to reach one, that you don't have a record now. But you're gonna have one tomorrow. You haven't shot anybody yet, you haven't robbed anybody yet, or you haven't been robbed, maybe. Or maybe you haven't turned a trick yet. Maybe you don't have HIV and AIDS… I can guarantee you one thing. If you don't get your life together and let somebody help you, let me help you. Let's walk this road together. Let me walk you out of this. I guarantee you, it won't be long."
The only people who get the treatment offer are first-time offenders who live in Philadelphia.
On its face, it seems like an offer too good to refuse. But most offenders decide to go to jail. To them, a few hours or days behind bars is much easier than months of recovery.
"This is a hideous disease," says Wells. "And it has a part that people don't wanna deal with;, they don't wanna look at themselves. And that's the insane part of it. Very few people can crawl out of this pit. So you have to throw them a rope."
One man, Espedito Ariias, seemed eager to grab the rope and choose treatment over jail.
"Let me tell you about the program," a counselor told Ariias on the first day. "It is one day at a time; it is a six-months-to-a-year program, it is a tough-love program. You come into the houses, there are no locks on the doors. You don't have to stay; we are not going to make you stay. This process is from six months to a year."
The counselor continued: "We don't have no detox. Nothing like that. It's cold turkey. Think you can handle it?"
"I will try," Ariias answered.
But that first day, Ariias ran out the front door and into a waiting car. He remains at large.
Wells was not surprised, as he himself had tried and failed to get off drugs most of his life. In 1983, Henry Wells was looking for someone to help him out—and couldn't find anyone. Down and out in Philadelphia after a lifetime of street-life, he found his salvation: he would save himself by saving others. After meeting some fellow addicts in a detox center, they moved in together to keep each other sober.
Slowly, the number grew as recovering addicts recruited old street buddies.
Today,Wells says 1,800 men and women go through his program every year, and about a third of them remain sober. Most residents pay nothing, and living conditions are rough. The staff has no doctors, no trained counselors, only each other.
The addicts and Wells talk in groups several times a day, to each other mornings and nights, and sometimes to juvenile offenders as young as 10.
"The method of treatment is one addict helping another," says Wells. "Meaning that I know about your pain and suffering. And I can tell you about my pain and suffering. And I'll get better and you'll get better and we'll get better together. It's a very simple process. There's nothing complicated. You don't have to be a rocket scientist to do it. I know, because I did it."
"We're not looking for somebody that just want a few days," he says, "because recovery for us is not for 30 days, 60 days, 90 days. It's one day at a time for the rest of your life."
Why should people care about what happens to some addicts? "Some of the same people that you think that it doesn't affect you, those are the people that broke into your car downtown," Wells says. "Those are the people that stuck you up. Those are the people that rob your mother. Those are the people that shot you. So you should care."
Forty-eight-year-old Allen Burgess knows how hard it is to choose treatment. When he was nabbed, Burgess was a construction inspector, married, a father and a heroin addict for 20 years.
Says Burgess: "When I got arrested, had I gone, had I not taken this choice, I'd have probably been out of jail in six to eight hours. And because of that, have the opportunity to continue doing what I was doing. By coming in (to get treatment), I'm immediately on a blackout. I'm not going out the door."
"Because coming in here probably looks like you actually have to stop doing drugs. I remember being afraid to pray to God to get another day clean 'cause I was scared he would give it to me."
Burgess had been in traditional treatment with trained specialists many times in many places, and always relapsed. Everyone here has the same story, including Linda Hicks. She was 34 when she became seriously addicted, 39 when she met Wells and became sober. Now, she works with him and helps run the program.
Says Hicks: "In the rehab, you had your room, you had people checking on you, you were cared for. Here, you just were really doubled up with a bunch of other people who had the same problem. No special treatment. And rather than taking walks and exercising on the grounds of the rehab, you were walking down the street. You were having to make a choice as you went down the street each day whether or not you wanted to stop and find a dealer or whether or not you wanted to stay with these people or leave."
But what remains the same is remembering that you are always one day away from being back on drugs. New arrivals, old veterans, family and friends – even Commissioner Johnson - get together regularly to share the pain, the triumphs, and the message of Wells.
The Philadelphia police say the operation would be successful if only one addict was saved. After a dozen stings with about 75 people offered the choice, four people came to live with Wells, stayed sober and out of jail. In the dismal world of drug addiction, those are dazzling numbers.