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Old 09-27-2004, 10:19 PM
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Default Deschutes County Official urges county to add drug courts

Official urges county to add drug courts

Published: September 26, 2004

By Chris Barker

The Bulletin

Deschutes County needs a special drug court to stanch the flow of addicts circulating through the criminal justice system, outgoing county Mental Health Department Director Gary Smith said.

Smith, who retired this week after more than 30 years of work in the mental health field, is convinced drug courts like those already running in Crook and Jefferson counties are a more efficient use of money.

"It works; it's proven to work," he said. "They make a difference, and they keep people out of the system."

Drug courts use extensive supervision, drug testing and treatment programs to handle criminal cases involving people with drug addiction problems. Advocates say the courts reduce recidivism, cut crime rates and save money due to reduced health care and prison costs.

There are more than 1,500 drug courts currently operating in the United States, according to the National Association of Drug Court Professionals.

Deschutes County was on the verge of launching a drug court two years ago when state budget cuts hit the circuit court system hard, county and court officials said.

Then the circuit court was hit by a 27 percent cut in state funding, a financial blow that reduced court services and forced the closure of the facility on Fridays.

Although several local officials had traveled to drug courts across the country at federal expense to observe how they work, the idea for a Deschutes County version was shelved.

It's unclear if Deschutes County is experiencing an increase in first-time felony offenders with drug addictions — the most likely candidates for drug courts. Court officials were unable to provide statistics answering that question.

But larger felony cases involving sales, posession of large quantities and manufacturing of drugs are on the rise.

The Central Oregon Drug Enforcement (CODE) team, which includes police and sheriff's deputies from Deschutes, Jefferson and Crook counties, has seen a steady increase in cases since 2002, according to Deschutes County Circuit Court officials.

The team filed 286 cases last year, a 17 percent increase from the 245 cases filed in 2002, court officials said.

In the first six months of 2004, CODE has filed 196 cases, court officials said. If that pace continues, Deschutes County will see a 37 percent increase in CODE cases by the end of December.

Deschutes County Presiding Circuit Court Judge Michael Sullivan said drug courts are a good idea. But while most of the funding lost due to state budget cuts has been regained, the resources aren't yet available to effectively launch a resource-intensive drug court, he added.

"It's a question of resources at the court level and the community level," Sullivan said.

One essential missing element is the availability of residential drug treatment programs, said Ernie Mazorol, trial court administrator for Deschutes County.

"You can't say ‘I want to put you in a drug treatment program' and put them on a 90-day waiting list like we have right now," Mazorol said.

Other unfunded needs include additional judge time, a drug court coordinator and additional court staff time, Judge Sullivan said.

Getting admitted to a residential drug or alcohol treatment program in Central Oregon currently takes a minimum of three months, said Rick Treleaven, executive director of BestCare Treatment Services.

BestCare is a nonprofit company that provides outpatient and residential drug and alcohol treatment in Central Oregon.

In addition, recent cuts in the Oregon Health Plan mean the state now covers less treatment for addicts, Treleaven said.

But like many advocates of a drug court system, Treleaven said he's convinced a drug court would eventually pay for itself.

"We're cutting budgets and expanding prison beds," he said. "If you could simply divert funding to slow down the funding of prisons you could easily pay for drug courts in every county."

Crook County's drug court is the best weapon against Central Oregon's most significant addiction issue: methamphetamine, said Crook County Circuit Court Judge Gary Thompson.

The court, which was started in 1997 with the help of a federal grant, has become a model for several other Oregon counties that also started drug courts, Thompson said.

"A lot of people who are drug addicts haven't had a lot of ‘atta boys' in their lives," Thompson said. "Having somebody in authority say, ‘We're proud of you, you're doing really well' I think means something."

Addicts who go through the Crook County program are required to submit to urine tests up to three times per week, said Kathy Neal, who administered the program for the last year. In addition, they are required to attend 12-step programs and see Judge Thompson on a regular basis.

Typically those who opt to go to drug court are first-time felony offenders, Neal said. Completion of the one-year program can result in having that felony expunged from their records — a strong incentive, Neal said.

Thompson, defense attorneys and a prosecutor donate their time for the program, Neal said. Crook County officials are currently searching for grant funds to pay for the program.

Without drug court, offenders would likely still go to a treatment center, Judge Thompson said. But they would receive much less follow-up and fewer urine tests, he added.

A failed drug test in the absence of drug court would likely lead to a six-month jail stay and then probation, Thompson said.

By contrast, a relapse in drug court can be punished by short stints in jail. Sometimes offenders are ordered to sit in court on a day with a busy docket and observe as punishment, Thompson said.

Graduation day is celebrated with a party complete with written invitations, framed graduation certificates, cake and punch, Thompson said.

Graduates of the Crook County program include methamphetamine users who began using in their mid-teens and kept taking the drug well into their 40s, he added.

"It changes their perception of the system. All of a sudden the system isn't their enemy; it's their ally," Thompson said.

A state push to establish drug courts may be on the way, said Treleaven, a member of a methamphetamine task force appointed by Gov. Ted Kulongoski.

"Drug court will be a part of that recommendation," Treleaven said.

Deschutes County District Attorney Mike Dugan said he would want a "fairly significant role" in determining what cases were sent to a potential drug court in Deschutes County.

While he is "generally in favor of drug courts," Dugan said he would question a drug court that didn't strongly address drug relapses.

"I say that falling off the wagon is committing another crime," Dugan said. "How are we going to address that issue?"

Potential hurdles include a lack of state funding, lenient sentencing guidelines that don't provide enough incentive for addicts to enter the program and a lack of success in treating methamphetamine addiction, Dugan said.

"I don't know quite frankly if anybody has a treatment program for meth that is proven successful," Dugan said.

The institution of a drug court would give addicts a better chance at recovery and cut property crimes in the community, said Deschutes County Circuit Court Judge Alta Brady.

Brady, who's been on the bench for 10 years in Deschutes County, estimates that 85 percent of her felony cases are alcohol- or drug-related.

The county court is using every resource it has to address addiction and how it relates to crime, Brady said. Often, that's not enough to get people out of the cycle of addiction, she added.

"The bottom line is it's still pretty much left to the offender to do the follow-through," Brady said. "The plus about drug court is it's so structured — we're basically imposing a structure on the defendant."

Chris Barker can be reached at 541-617-7829 or at cbarker@bendbulletin.com.
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