Catholics lobby legislators on drug laws, RHAPP, health care - Catholic Courier

Catholics lobby legislators on drug laws, RHAPP, health care

ALBANY — Twelve current and former residents of Freedom House, a residential drug-treatment program in Rochester, rode a wave of momentum in Albany March 10, where they joined more than 1,000 Catholics in lobbying their state legislators in support of Rockefeller Drug Law reform and a number of other issues. The lobbying efforts were part of the New York State Catholic Conference’s annual Public Policy Day.

Less than a week earlier, on March 4, the state Assembly passed legislation that would eliminate most of the controversial drug laws’ mandatory minimum state-prison sentences and create new sentencing options for judges. And less than three weeks later on March 27, Gov. David Paterson, Senate Majority Leader Malcolm Smith and Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver announced they’d reached an agreement to enact sweeping reforms to the Rockefeller Drug Laws. At press time March 27 the Senate and Assembly had not yet voted on this legislation.

New York’s Catholic bishops and their public-policy arm — the New York State Catholic Conference — have long criticized the current drug laws for their failure to discriminate between low-level addicts and high-level dealers, and for their failure to offer such incarceration alternatives as rehabilitation and reintegration opportunities. Freedom House is one such alternative opportunity to incarceration, said John Hemmers, the program’s senior primary therapist.

Freedom House, which is operated by Catholic Family Center, is an intensive six- to nine-month program and has a 68-percent success rate, Hemmers said. Many residents have been incarcerated multiple times for substance-abuse-related offenses before starting the program, and many also suffer from mental-health issues, he said.

“When they come to us, we’re the last house on the block,” Hemmers remarked.

Freedom House residents are strictly supervised, and the staff takes a holistic approach to their treatment, he added. Many of the program’s graduates go on to find employment and lead productive lives, he said.

It costs approximately $14,000 to rehabilitate a Freedom House resident, which is far less than the more than $30,000 price tag on a year’s incarceration in state prison, Hemmers noted. That fact alone should be reason enough for legislators to enact Rockefeller Drug Law reforms, added David Furman, alcohol and substance therapist at Freedom House.

“We need major change,” Furman said. “It’s (alternatives to incarceration) cost-effective. Now because of the economy, I think they’re willing to listen.”

The other items on the Catholic conference’s agenda for Public Policy Day were:

* Opposition to the Reproductive Health and Privacy Protection Act, which was first introduced by then-Gov. Eliot Spitzer. This bill seeks to ensure that abortions remain legal throughout all nine months of pregnancy; make abortions virtually immune to state regulation or restriction; eliminate conscience protections in current law for Catholic hospitals, doctors, agencies and schools; and undermine New York state’s maternity programs.

* Preserving Catholic schools, which along with other independent and religious schools save the state more than $8 billion each year, according to the Catholic conference. Catholics in Albany lobbied for education tax credits to help preserve these schools while relieving pressure on the state budget.

* Health-care reform. Paterson has proposed budget cuts to hospitals and nursing homes, which the Catholic conference believes would severely limit the availability of health care to the elderly and to medically vulnerable people of all ages.

* Traditional marriage. The Catholic conference supports the traditional understanding of marriage as a union between a man and a woman, and believes this family unit provides a stable home environment for children.

* Support for poor families. Some of the cuts in Paterson’s proposed budget would have direct and negative consequences for working families, including a proposed 25 percent cut to Catholic Charities of Steuben County’s Homeless Intervention Program, said Laura Opelt, the agency’s executive director.

“There’s a whole new group of people who are experiencing difficult times and no longer able to make ends meet. In Steuben County alone the unemployment rate has increased 2.4 percent in the last year,” Opelt said. “As you can see, the needs are getting greater … and the government is cutting the human-service dollars because of the dilemma we’re in.”

Catholic lobbyists from the Diocese of Rochester added another item to their agenda: support for the Farm Worker Fair Practices Act, which would eliminate farmworkers’ exemptions from the state’s labor, public-health and workers’ compensation laws, said Deacon Jim Nail, pastoral minister at St. Mary of the Lake Parish in Ontario. Deacon Nail brought fellow parishioners Joseph Moll, 17, and his brother, Luke Moll, 14, along on the lobbying trip.

“I think it’s important to bring the youth … because they can see that they have an opportunity, a right, to meet with their representatives. Every time they come away from Public Policy Day they always are surprised that they had the opportunity to sit in a chair next to their assemblyman and be heard,” Deacon Nail said.

Fourteen-year-old Jessica Faillaci of Irondequoit’s Christ the King Parish was one such surprised teen after she and her father, Michael Faillaci, met with their assemblyman.

“I thought he’d be really cold and not listen to what we had to say, but he was very open,” she said.

“I thought this was an excellent opportunity for her to come out and see our faith in action and making a difference,” Michael Faillaci added.

This story was updated on April 1, 2009.

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