Now that a course addressing drugs and the criminal justice system has been cut from the curriculum at Westminster College, there’s one fewer opportunity for students to engage in conversations about the topic. Though an ASW Life 101 panel discussion addressed the topic on April 4, low event turnout signaled students may need a more structured environment to open conversations and ask questions about the topic.
There were 17 audience members at the Drugs and Justice panel. Four of them were family members of one of the panelists, one was a member of the public unassociated with Westminster who heard about the event on Facebook, nine were ASW officials and three were students.
“Unfortunately, there wasn’t a huge turnout,” said Cassandra Yerkes, a junior arts administration major and next year’s ASW.Events president. “I wish that people had come to this because I think that there’s value in speaking with these people who you normally wouldn’t ever get the chance to be in contact with.”
The Drug and Justice panel consisted of Jennifer Johnson, an adjunct professor at Westminster College and federal probation officer; Danny Davis, a RISE court drug program graduate; and Georgette Leventis, a federal investigator.
Yerkes said she learned valuable things about the relationship between drugs and the criminal justice system at the event. She said she thinks people assume doing drugs is fun and don’t realize the impact it has on people, their families and society.
Nicole McKenna, ASW.Events president and the panel’s coordinator, said the goal of the Life 101 lecture series is to openly discuss, teach about and answer questions surrounding taboo topics like sex, drugs and alcohol.
“That’s why we have these types of events is so people can learn about things that we don’t end up talking about,” McKenna said. “I think that college is the perfect opportunity to allow students to have conversations and learn about these types of things.”
The panel addressed the topics of drugs and the criminal justice system, which are no longer part of any dedicated curriculum Westminster College offers.
Johnson said she reached out to the Justice Studies department chair, Leonardo Figueroa-Helland, to discuss offering a course in the program’s curriculum that would address drugs, since “they are directly tied to criminal justice.”
She said she received no response.
“It’s really unfortunate that it’s been cut out of the curriculum because it’s impossible today to get through life without having somebody in your life, or you, be impacted by substance abuse,” Johnson said. “The number of people walking around campus that have been impacted by drugs is significant, so to not talk about it in a classroom setting is unfortunate.”
Figueroa-Helland said the Drugs and Justice course is no longer offered because of low enrollment.
“I am open to having the course again if there is demand for it,” Figueroa-Helland said in an email. “Over the years we have had many different topic-related courses in Justice Studies. Some have had high enrollment [and] others much lower.”
Now that the course has been cut, Johnson said the justice studies curriculum doesn’t have any class that primarily addresses drugs and the criminal justice system and their implications on the community.
“My position, even though I’m law enforcement, is never to tell people not to use drugs,” Johnson said. “My position is to teach people about drugs and then let them make their decision. People just need information.”
Drug abuse and crime are continuously linked; and though addiction is recognized as a chronic, relapsing disease, offenders often don’t receive the treatment they need, according to the National Institute of Drug Abuse under the National Institutes of Health.
“They need to start implementing more things that deal with addiction instead of just sending everybody back to prison,” Davis said. “There are so many people that go undiagnosed. The only way we know how to help ourselves with that is through drugs and alcohol. It’s a coping mechanism.”
One hundred fourteen million Americans age 12 or older (46 percent of the population) reported illicit drug use at least once in their lifetime, according to data from the 2007 National Household Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH). Fourteen percent reported use of a drug within the past year and 8 percent reported use of a drug within the past month.
Data from the NSDUH showed that marijuana and cocaine use are most prevalent among individuals age 18 to 25.
“Nine out of 10 of my newest clients have been between 19 and 23 [years old],” said Leventis, who was an investigator for the Federal Public Defender’s Office shortly before transferring to the Federal Probation Office. “Jennifer and I have both been doing this for 20 years and they’re just getting younger and younger.”
According to research on drugs and crime from the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) under the U.S. Department of Justice, rates of cocaine use by college students have varied over the past 11 years, from a low of 2.9 percent in 1996 to a high of 5.4 percent in 2007.
Leventis said many have, by default, ended up in the criminal justice system due to lack of institutions and community facilities with resources for the mentally ill and those suffering from addiction.
Leventis said it’s important for Westminster students, Salt Lake residents and U.S. citizens to know about and address these issues because restorative justice and alternatives to incarceration allow people to successfully resume their contributions to society.
“My goal has been to continue to help develop those programs,” Leventis said. “It’ll be better for them, it’ll be better for us—it’ll be better for the community as a whole if we provide those kinds of services.”