NWA editorial: Modern-day slavery?

Drug courts’ rehab programs, employers scrutinized

Posted: November 4, 2017 at 1 a.m.

To hear state Sen. Jim Hendren's side of the story, one might come to believe that no good deed really will go unpunished.

Hendren's plastic molding company is caught up in a controversy over a drug and rehabilitation program's practices. Some former clients have accused the nonprofit rehab program of mistreatment and of keeping their wages from jobs they filled while going through the program.

What’s the point?

An area company is caught up in a controversy over a drug and alcohol rehabilitation program and the way it treats its clients.

Hendren Plastics Inc. this week terminated its agreement with the Drug and Alcohol Recovery Program amid claims the program's clients, who faced prison time for their offenses, were effectively used as slave labor to earn money for the diversionary program, which was supposed to provide treatment for their addictions.

Three lawsuits have been filed alleging wrongdoing by the program Hendren's firm worked with and the Oklahoma-based Christian Alcoholics and Addicts in Recovery. Simmons Foods and other "John Doe" companies are accused of conspiring with rehabilitation programs to access free labor.

According to the lawsuits, drug-court defendants were sent to the programs as an alternative to prison and were required to sign an agreement stating that they understand they are not classified as workers and won't receive wages. Instead, payments were sent to the programs for rent, food and rehabilitation services -- not for possible court or government fees.

Let's see here: Go to prison or sign this document and get to stay out of prison. Why would anyone be pressured by that arrangement, right?

For Hendren's part, he said he regrets the situation because he always saw value in the program. He reported that his company paid the going hourly wage for program participants' work, but not to the worker. The program got the money. Hendren said the program has long seemed like a chance to give people a second chance and a way to stay out of jail.

His company has hired some program participants to work after they completed the program, he said.

The legalities or infringements will have to be figured out in court. There are, no doubt, lots of details left to come out.

From what we know so far, however, it seems Hendren's intentions were admirable. Certainly, given the difficulty of the jobs at his operation, he gains a benefit having access to a pool of workers who don't have many options, but with the region's low unemployment, employers have to be creative to find workers. Still, the set-up described in the lawsuits sounds unfair to the people who were part of those programs and raises questions about whether the money raised by their labors were fully re-invested back into the program.

From our editorial board's perspective, it will prove difficult for the rehabilitation programs to justify an approach in which people must work for no pay or face incarceration. It's also concerning that the programs have had limited options in terms of treatment or therapy for addictions.

Perhaps more important than how these companies' arrangements worked is how the drug courts system vets the nonprofit diversionary treatment programs it's willing to go into business with.

Stay tuned.

Commentary on 11/04/2017