By Mario Garita / ISH
SAN JOSÉ, Costa Rica – To get the US$2 he needed to satisfy his crack addiction, Juan Carlos Alemán thought he had no choice but to steal a woman’s purse in Costa Rica’s capital of San José.
On the afternoon of July 13, 2012, after smoking crack with one of his friends, Alemán found himself without any money and needing more drugs, so he started begging on the streets of the Barrio Cuba in San José. Frustrated by his inability to get the US$2 to feed his addiction, he threatened a woman and snatched her purse.
Alemán, 23, was arrested a few minutes after the victim alerted police.
He has spent eight months of his 20-month sentence in the minimum security block of San Sebastián Prison in San José.
“What people don’t understand is that you need to buy drugs,” he said from prison. “I had never assaulted anybody like that, but I didn’t have money and nobody would give me any because they could see that I was so high. The only thing I wanted was the money ($1,000 Costa Rican colones, or US$2) to buy a dose of crack.”
While authorities do not keep records on the number of drug addicts who commit crimes, many of them who wind up in prison do not receive treatment for their addictions, according to the government.
But that changes in September.
Since February, the Ministry of Justice and Peace, the Costa Rican Drug Institute (ICD) and the Institute on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence (IAFA) have been implementing the Drug Treatment Program under Judicial Supervision, which officially will start offering treatment to addicts in September.
“The system offers [incarcerated drug addicts] a three-pronged approach: treatment, assistance with the criminal system [with reduced sentences and medical assistance] and social reinsertion,” Mauricio Boraschi, the country’s former drug commissioner, said when the program was introduced.
The plan, which costs $10.022 billion colones (about US$20.09 million), is financed through agreements with Brazil and the Organization of American States (OAS).
The program is training judges and evaluating potential candidates for treatment.
The pilot plan will begin with 10-15 prisoners in the San Sebastián Prison and will eventually be implemented in the country’s 15 prisons, according to Judge Doris Arias, who heads the program.
Boraschi said the treatment will be provided by the IAFA, the governing body for drug prevention and treatment policies in Costa Rica.
The patients first will be evaluated to determine their levels of addiction. Relatives and friends also will be contacted to create a support network and facilitate reintegration.
Finally, when they complete the treatment, the IAFA will certify to the court the patient has completed the program and can return to society.
“This program manages to avoid recidivism and offers the possibility of social reintegration, which reduces our crime problem and overcrowding in our prisons,” Boraschi said.
From January to April of this year, San José registered 197 complaints of assaults, though there is no record specifying whether the assailants were under the influence of drugs, according to the Judicial Investigation Department (OIJ).
Marijuana consumption at the country’s prisons has reached 12.9%, which is 43 times higher than the overall population, while crack consumption is 6.6%, ,which is 66 times higher than the overall population, according to IAFA.
“[In prison], people get worse because there always is someone who can get you the drugs you want,” Alemán said. “I mind my own business, but there are other inmates who you have to watch out for. When you least expect it, they’ll be all over you. If you don’t give them what they want, they’ll cut you to teach you a lesson.”
The program also should help the Ministry of Justice decrease prison overcrowding. Costa Rica’s 15 penitentiaries collectively hold 13,213 inmates, which is 3,400 over capacity, according to Costa Rica’s Social Services Department.
“People who come in for relatively minor misdemeanors are mixed with others who have long sentences, and they become criminals,” Ofelia Taitelbaum, Costa Rica’s ombudsman, told reporters. “That’s why, once they’re released, they go on to commit more serious crimes.”
In Costa Rica, the criminal process is divided into five stages. A case can take, on average, four months to reach the third phase, the trial.
However, the new program will shorten this process through pre-trial agreements, according to the Ministry of Justice.
“The measures passed down by the judge at the end of the process can range from in-patient treatment to a gradual detoxification,” Boraschi said. “In the event that [the accused] abandons the process, they must return to the judicial phase.”
The initiative is part of the Drug Treatment Court program of OAS, which is being carried out in Argentina, Canada, Chile, Costa Rica, the Dominican Republic, Jamaica, Mexico, Suriname and Trinidad and Tobago.
“Next year, I plan on applying to see whether they can help me get out,” Alemán said. “This isn’t the life I wanted. I want to get cured so I can go home to my mom and my sister.”