American anti-drug policies and practices are too punitive, prey on the poor and destroy the one connection that can help former users stay former users — families.

So says a 30-year criminal justice reform activist who was in Utah on Monday touting the family as an untouched natural resource in the fight against drug abuse.

In Utah, the state where families are held up as the pillar of society, incarceration first and foremost is an approach to the drug problem that runs counter to the state's core strength, Carol Shapiro told the Deseret News before speaking Monday afternoon to members of Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr's cabinet. Earlier in the day, she spoke to juvenile court and social service leaders in Utah.

"The road has been to demonize," said Shapiro, founder and president of Family Justice. "But we all have to keep in mind what the effect of that has on families. We all have someone or know someone who has a loved one who is in trouble. We all know the positive impact that a loved one can have on us, no matter what kind of problem we might be dealing with."

The problem in dealing with substance abuse is the approach that heavily favors imprisoning people when their only crime is using or possession. In the process, "we've created a huge business complex that's ties local budgets to its capacity to create revenue from preying mostly on the poor — which are treated badly on all fronts in society — and other nonconformers."

In 1996, working out of an abandoned drug-dealing bodega (grocery store) in lower Manhattan, Shapiro launched a demonstration project to test how families can build on their strengths to support one another, bolstering the efficacy of services and marshalling the unrecognized resource of families.

"Family members do not stop loving each other when struggling with things that get them into trouble, like addiction and mental illness," she said. "And their social networks are free, so it makes a lot of sense to figure out how to tap their strength."

Her organization partners with government, families and the neighborhoods to which they are connected to break cycles of involvement in the criminal justice system.

"I like to say we are the Aretha Franklin model," Shapiro said. "Often, poor families in the criminal justice system are not respected. Families are experts in their own lives, so we need to listen to them and respect them, as well as everyone else in the system and neighborhoods, parole, police and probation officers and others."

Family Justice will launch a nationwide membership network to provide larger-scale Internet support for organizations and individuals interested and invested in the Bodega Model. Shapiro would also like to involve Family Justice internationally, bringing her model to bear on issues of political prisoners and reentering prisoners in countries such as Rwanda and South Africa.

"The very families that are often destabilized by drugs and crime are in fact a major stabilizing influence for those under community-based justice supervision," Shapiro said. "Utah recognizes that the core of society is the family, and should do all it can to stick to that approach, even when a family is torn apart by alcohol and other drug addictions."

By drawing upon family members' mutual loyalties, desire to help, and availability — often, 24 hours a day — public supervision agencies can improve individual outcomes, as well as family well-being, Shapiro said.

"What we're trying to do is build on the strengths of the family rather than on the deficits of the individual," Shapiro said. "The judicial system has a firm grip on focusing on what's wrong and how to punish people."

Ray Wahl, Utah juvenile court administrator, said the Family Justice model has merits and that the positives of keeping long-term and family relationships intact are obvious.

"We would welcome and fully support a community or a neighborhood in a community taking an active part in keeping those ties," Wahl said. "But, frankly, it's going to take a commitment, and an ongoing one, at that level, to really start to begin a shift toward more treatment and less punishment."