Prospects looking up for drug court


by Ron Gholson

Drug court is an effective program doing a solid job dealing with a monumental problem: rehabilitating drug addicts and returning them to the world as fully functioning and productive people.

Briefly: In more than four years of operation, it has handled 116 cases, not including 28 currently in the program, and 77 have successfully completed the demanding program and graduated. That’s a success rate of more than 66 percent, considered excellent for drug rehabilitation programs.

Of the 77 who graduated, only two individuals (2.6 percent) are known to have been charged with new felony convictions in the last three years, although it is possible not all have been identified. That’s an almost unheard of success rate in the annals of drug rehab, where a 40 to 50 percent recidivism (re-offending) rate is considered in the normal range. The back story

However, as a result of large-scale changes in the criminal justice system statewide in recent years, clouds have been gathering on the horizon – until recently – for drug court. It is serving fewer and fewer offenders and becoming marginal in scale and impact due to sentencing changes which no longer incentivize candidates to enter drug court, while the problem of addiction – both individually and as a collective phenomenon throughout the country – continues unabated.

In short, previously drug court was an attractive alternative to a prison sentence for offenders facing conviction. With new sentencing guidelines mandated by the state Legislature, many offenders no longer face prison terms if convicted, thus have no incentive to enter drug court as an alternative. Consideration has begun of ways to address that problem at the county level.

Meanwhile, another solution to address the dwindling number of drug court referrals is in the works. It’s called the drug court “short track” and it proposes to expand the scope of drug court to a new population of offenders: those who are arrested and charged with drug possession (but not drug sale or trafficking), and who are deemed by screeners to be recreational users, but not hardened addicts – and who have no record of felony convictions.

These offenders would be offered the chance to attend a drug court regimen. In keeping with their less severe and less-ingrained drug-related problems, it would last 6 months, given successful participation, instead of the customary 12 months or more for addicted drug users. It would be less strenuous in its time and attendance requirements than the 12-month program, but would still require each individual to be drug- and alcohol-free for four continuous months, as determined by frequent and random drug tests.

Implementing the program, however, had been bogged down for several months due to lack of consensus on how to cover its costs. A quiet success

Recently, a problem-solving meeting among principals involved in drug court was called by Blount County Circuit Judge Steven King. It included King, Blount County District Attorney Pamela Casey, Drug Court Judge John Dobson, Community Corrections director Daryl Wheeler, and drug court defense attorney Eddie Lowe. The group successfully hammered out an agreement affecting division of proceeds to cover costs that should allow the drug court short track to go into effect in the near future. Two participants who are no longer official members of the drug court team also made solid contributions: assistant District Attorney Scott Gilliland and defense attorney Steven Goldstein.

The accord will increase the numbers of drug offenders who may choose to attend drug court, provided they qualify. The increase in numbers, by restoring/ expanding its scale of operations and increasing local funding, will contribute to the continuing economic viability and sustainability of drug court. Getting better

Aside from that, drug court is on a course to get even better at what it does. Improvement is based on introducing a new element into the demanding drug court regimen. The new element is a group of volunteers called peer support specialists. They are trained and certified workers who specialize in assisting their drug court clients in solving the kind of life problems that are aggravating for anyone. For recovering drug addicts they can be almost insurmountable, given the other requirements they must meet to succeed in drug court.

What kind of problems? Simple things like finding a place to live when they don’t have rent money; finding a way to make drug court appearances several times a week when they don’t have a car; finding a job when filling out an application is an intimidating problem, not to mention that they may need help preparing a resume; paying bills; managing their money by making a budget; finding a way to buy critical necessities like medications, clothing, food; in essence, coping with the basics of life.

After years of living on the edge as addicts, “they have to learn to live life again,” said certified peer support specialist Mary Beth Robertson.

Robertson is joined by drug court certified peer support specialists Jody Davidson,Vanessa Washburn, recent addition Tammy Clements, and Lisa Hutchins, full-time drug court case manager. John Dobson says they could use more.

The specialists themselves say that they – and their drug court clients – need more resources: more contributions from churches, groceries, individuals. They especially need more referral facilities, like treatment programs, transition facilities for women, and other resources that are in short supply in Blount County.

Topping their wish list is the desire for a “drop-in center” in the Family Services Mall near the drug court offices. It would be a small room with a desk or two, computer stations, and maybe a few comfortable chairs, which would serve as a focal point for drug court clients and peer support specialists to confer. It would be used to identify clients’ needs and match them with services and resources that could be found by peer support specialists working their networks and contacts. That need for space has been made known. What remains is to wait for help to arrive. Storm warning

Dobson sounds a warning note related to broader trends in the state justice system, which is transferring more and more responsibility not only for drug offenses but for corrections, incarceration, and rehabilitation from the state to the counties. And accompanying the responsibility comes the costs.

“It raises serious questions for local leadership in the near future. What are we going to do with felons in the county? If you don’t deal with drugs in state prison, and we don’t get organized to deal with them here, what are we going to do? We’re behind the curve already. We need to be looking at alternatives like a work release program and other similar approaches where we’re going to need innovative solutions.”