DRUG COURT - INTERVENTION VS. PUNISHMENT

November 23, 2001 11:00 pm
COURT PLANNING: Helping coordinator the planning and eventual operations of the Union County Drug Court will be coordinator Teresa Koza, busy now working out all the details of the intensive court program. (The Observer/T.L. PETERSEN).
COURT PLANNING: Helping coordinator the planning and eventual operations of the Union County Drug Court will be coordinator Teresa Koza, busy now working out all the details of the intensive court program. (The Observer/T.L. PETERSEN).

By T.L. Petersen

Observer Staff Writer

The idea isnt difficult. As soon as a person is charged the first time with possessing a controlled substance, intervene and try to get them help.

And make the drug charge, after treatment, a turning point for a better life.

Implementing the idea has been a months-long process in Union County. The effort has brought together judges, law enforcement officers, defense attorneys, prosecutors and addiction treatment providers. Also on board are representatives from agencies ranging from the Center for Human Development, Northeast Oregon Housing Authority, the Commission on Children and Families and the Training and Employment Consortium, to name several.

The idea is set to become reality Jan. 8. Then the first session of Union Countys Drug Court will convene in front of Judges Phil Mendiguren and Eric Valentine.

Its an integrated, individualized approach, says Valentine. A participant cant become anonymous because there is close scrutiny and continuing interaction.

Valentine and Mendiguren have been directly involved with the drug court program that began last June in Wallowa County.

Their weekly involvement with those going through the process talking directly to defendants, and if need be, sanctioning them keeps people tuned in to the caring attention of the drug court team.

The Union County drug court program, said Union County District Attorney Russ West, is treatment oriented, and intervention is swift.

The end result of the year-long drug court system for a defendant is similar to the drunk-driving diversion program the original charge is dismissed.

Still, Valentine sees drug court

as having important differences.

The key here is continuing judicial scrutiny, with the judge getting a picture weekly from the drug court team about how the defendant is progressing, Valentine said. Then, if they complete the program successfully, the charges are dismissed.

The judge and other members of the drug court team, including treatment providers and possibly even employers and landlords, will set up conditions for defendants and check regularly on the persons progress.

But the system is by no means easy. It isnt expected to involve large numbers of defendants , yet should result in a lower rate of recidivism.

Programs like drug court and other court-initiated problem-resolution actions are part of a trend in the court system, said Union County Community Corrections Director Cedric Shanks.

The state Legislature has set this as a precursor to a mandate, he said. Intervention programs are the direction of legislative choice, over simple punishment.

WHO DRUG COURT ISN'T DESIGNED FOR

The first step in understanding the drug court concept is understanding who the system isnt designed for. No one charged with manufacturing or delivering a controlled substance is eligible, nor is anyone accused of having drugs as a commercial offense (for example, large quantities for sale).

Its designed for the first-time offender who wants to change, says Union County Assistant District Attorney Steve Cordill. Its not for someone just trying to beat drug charges.

The program is expected to speed up the entire court process once a person has been charged.

As West describes the current court system, someone facing drug charges may face a delay after being arraigned while a court-appointed attorney is assigned, while motions to delay or suppress evidence are filed, while court dates are determined and the case just goes on and on, he said.

GO DIRECTLY TO TREATMENT

Under the drug court process, treatment starts right away. The defendant pleads guilty and agrees not to have an attorney process any motions to suppress.

Whats more, the drug court program is setting up contracts with treatment providers, so any delay getting help is minimized.

The key component of drug court is that all those participating meet, as a group, with a judge once a week in the courtroom.

Its an interesting concept, giving judges that role in the defendants recovery, says Teresa Koza, drug court coordinator.

Each week, members of the drug court team treatment providers, probation officers, employers and others will give a report to the judge on how the defendant is doing.

If required urinanalysis checks or other conditions arent being met, sanctions are swift.

The judge can order the defendant immediately into a residential treatment program. A serious problem can see the person handcuffed in the courtroom and marched off to jail. The judge can order more meeting attendance at Narcotics Anonymous or Alcoholics Anonymous, or a curfew set, or enrollment in other activities.

All those participating in the defendants treatment meet together to discuss how the defendant is doing, Valentine said. The great thing about drug court is the team approach.

Koza, the coordinator, sees the four key elements of the drug court program. First, direct personal involvement with a judge. Second, urinanalysis checks several times a week. Third, swiftly enforced sanctions. And fourth, the role of peer pressure that happens as the defendants appear together before the judge each week.

What makes drug court work is the personal involvement of the circuit judge, Koza said.

Another benefit of drug court, said Cordill, is that drug forfeiture monies can be used to help fund the program.

Unlike many programs, Koza says, drug court has already received seed money from the county drug task force and wont need to rely on a grant.

And there will be a fee to participate, Shanks said. A treatment fee will have to be paid.

TEAM WORKS FOR SUCCESS

Completion of the drug court also has requirements, West added, including the defendant having a job or being enrolled in a training program. The importance of work or education is a key to self-esteem, he said.

While a defendant would normally see each person involved in his or her case briefly, drug court has the advantage of having everyone stay involved as a team.

The defendant sees that the court wants them to succeed, but also to become accountable, Valentine said.

The history of drug courts trace back to the 1980s, Koza said, when crack cocaine became a huge problem.

Dealing with drug offenses with an eye toward intervention and treatment, not just punishment, isnt going to involve huge numbers of drug offenders. Cordill estimated that there are three to six defendants a month who might meet the initial requirements to be involved.

And Shanks suggested that success might need to be redefined.

If these people stay clean for six months, that will be success, he said.

Shanks estimate is that in the first year, the drug court may serve less than a dozen people. In Wallowa County, two defendants are currently involved.

But the goal is small changes. A dozen defendants, getting treatment, breaking the cycle of drugs, improving their family situations and becoming working members of the community can have ever-spreading positive repercussions.

And that, all involved agree, will be success.