Drug Rehab or Bonuses for Bosses?

Before the 10 women arrived at Project New Start, most had experienced drug addiction, prostitution, beatings by pimps and bouts of bad health.

The facility, located in a former convent, is a residential rehabilitation and vocational training center for recent female graduates of Los Angeles County jails.

Most of the residents, who are in their 20s and 30s, are mothers, although their kids have been taken from them by disgusted relatives or by government officials and shipped off to foster homes. Before coming to New Start, these women had sunk to what they now know was the very bottom of life.

I found out about the place because of a column I wrote earlier in the year about another drug rehab center that was losing its funding. At about the same time the county was cutting $1.4 million from these programs, the supervisors spent $1.5 million on bonuses for top county executives.

I thought they should have spent the money for drug rehab instead of bonuses.

You want to hear a worse story than that? The question came from Michelle Allegra, Project New Start's deputy director, who called me one day.

We're in danger of losing our county grant, she explained, and it's just $250,000. Unless the county reverses itself, we're going to have to close at the end of the year.

Late one afternoon, I drove to the old convent, on a narrow street in Silver Lake near downtown.

Allegra met me at the door and introduced me to Lisa Smith, the executive director. The three of us went upstairs to the library, where the 10 women awaited us.

If you've ever been to a meeting of Alcoholics Anonymous, you'll know how it went. Each woman stood up and told her story, beginning with her first name and affliction. "I'm Peggy. I'm a drug addict and alcoholic."

The stories had a common theme: Impoverished, abused childhood. Drugs beginning as a teen-ager. Prostitution or, as these women put it, "I began prostituting."

In the time Project New Start has been in operation, 10 women have graduated after nine months of drug and alcohol rehabilitation and vocational training. Seventy percent of the women who enroll remain in the program. And Smith said that so far all of the graduates have remained sober and productive.

On the surface, it's cheaper to keep a woman in Sybil Brand Institute, one of the women's county jails. But jail cost of more than $14,000 a year per woman doesn't count the price of police and courts, of medical care for ailments brought on by the woman's life on the streets, foster care for the children--or the undetermined costs of the emotionally damaged kids as they proceed through life.

And the figure does not include the high probability of the woman returning to her old life after leaving Sybil Brand.

Clearly, Project New Start was a bargain.

How can such a project fall through the cracks after proving its worth?

You've got to understand the old-fashioned quirkiness of county financing, shaped by political clout.

It began with Sybil Brand, a famous Los Angeles County social reformer who accomplished her goals because she also knew how to raise campaign contributions for the supervisors. Outraged at the inhumane treatment given women prisoners at the County Jail, Brand campaigned to force the supervisors to build a model prison, which they named for her.

On one of her periodic inspection programs, she brought along the executive director of an organization that runs job training programs, Dan Flaming. Flaming thought up the idea of a residential vocational rehabilitation center for the women and sold the project to Linda Tarnoff, one of Supervisor Deane Dana's aides. Dana pushed it through the Board of Supervisors.

Unfortunately, this burst of enthusiasm resulted in only a one-time $250,000 appropriation. When it ran out, Project New Start became just another in a long line of worthy projects seeking county aid.

Project New Start will probably get its money. Alerted to its dilemma, the five supervisors are preparing to pool emergency funds, including $60,000 from Supervisor Gloria Molina, who represents the district where the project is located. Although it is not certain, with Dana and others chipping in, it looks like Project New Start will get $100,000--enough to keep it alive until more money is raised.

If Project New Start lives, it will only be because of its backers' wits and their skill in maneuvering through the maze of county politics.

But that doesn't answer the larger question about priorities that first got me interested in the situation. I still want to know why the county spent all that money on executive bonuses instead of drug rehabilitation.

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