Drug court offers prison alternative

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By Calen McKinney

Those facing drug-related charges now have another alternative to paying their debt to society behind prison bars.

Taylor, Green, Marion and Washington counties now offer a court program designed specifically to address drug addiction.

A new Drug Court to serve adults in the four-county area began in mid-January with two participants, according to a press release from the Administrative Office of the Courts, the operational arm of the Kentucky Court of Justice.

By the end of this week, the AOC expects to have 10 men and women in the state-funded program. Participants range in age from 19 to 43 years.

Taylor County's new Drug Court is one of 51 such programs now operating in Kentucky, according to the AOC, with others scheduled to begin next month.

According to a handbook for participants, Drug Court is designed for those who have resorted to nonviolent criminal activity to support their drug addictions.

Taylor Circuit Court Judge Doughlas M. George will conduct Drug Court sessions for cases that originate in Circuit Court, a court that involves more serious criminal cases.

District Court Judge Amy S. Anderson will conduct the sessions for cases that begin in District Court, a lower court that involves misdemeanor, traffic and felony offenses.

George and Anderson are two of four judges who serve Taylor, Green, Marion and Washington counties in Kentucky's 11th judicial district.

"The mission is to provide a court-supervised treatment alternative that stops illicit drug use and related criminal activity and promotes a positive life change through substance abuse education and treatment," according to the AOC press release.

The release states that Drug Court is proving to be a positive solution to a serious social problem.

"The success of Drug Court can be measured in the number of lives changed and the cost savings to Kentucky taxpayers. The program has had a significant impact on reducing re-arrest, reconviction and re-incarceration rates.

"The program has resulted in increased payment of delinquent child support and improved employment rates," the release states.

For every $1 spent on Drug Court graduates, according to the AOC, the state saves $2.72 on what it would have spent on incarcerating those individuals.

George says he hopes the Drug Court program will be successful.

"We do have a severe drug problem in our area of the state, just as other parts of the state do," Judge George stated in the AOC press release. "I'm hopeful that Drug Court will be a success and help some people change their lives. Drug Court provides treatment as an alternative to incarceration, so it will also help in reducing the spiraling jail costs that the state and counties are facing."

Anderson, however, stated in the AOC release that she believes the program will be a way to help those addicted to drugs.

"We really appreciate the opportunity Judge George is giving us to team with him," Anderson stated. "This is a chance for us to look for ways to help the people we see here in court every day who are drug-driven to commit crimes."

How Drug Court works

According to the AOC, the Drug Court program coordinates the efforts of judges, prosecutors, Drug Court staff, defense attorneys, probation and parole employees, law enforcement, mental health and social services personnel and treatment communities to form a Drug Court team to intervene and break the cycle of substance abuse, addiction and crime.

According to Brian Blakeman, Drug Court recovery coordinator, participants are referred to the Drug Court program by a circuit or district court judge.

Blakeman said potential participants are those who have committed a nonviolent crime to support their drug habit.

The Drug Court program consists of three phases that last at least 18 months for felony participants, the release states, and 15 months for misdemeanor participants.

Phase I, the stabilization phase, consists of random drug testing, contact with drug court staff, weekly court sessions, obtaining full-time employment, training or education, obtaining or maintaining court-approved housing, making payments for court obligations, at least one weekly individual contact with drug court staff, indicating an understanding of substance abuse treatment, enrolling and attending a self-help program and maintaining a drug-free status for at least 30 consecutive days before being considered for promotion to the second phase.

The second phase, according to the handbook, is the education phase. The requirements for this phase are similar, though to a lesser degree, than the first phase. In this phase, participants must show an understanding of recovery principles and be drug-free for a minimum of 90 consecutive days before being considered for the third and final phase.

The last phase, the handbook states, is the self-motivational phase. This phase's requirements are similar to the education phase, though to an even lesser degree. This phase, however, includes participants learning how to live a recovery lifestyle and being drug-free for at least 180 consecutive days.

Other requirements may include employment, school and/or home visits by drug court staff, domestic violence counseling, curfews and medical and/or mental health referrals. Aftercare may also be required before a participant can graduate from the program.

The Drug Court program is completed when a participant has finished the three phases, completed aftercare, paid all restitution and court fees owed, remained drug-free for a minimum of 180 consecutive days and have no pending charges against them.

Participants may be terminated from the program if a member of the Drug Court team makes a recommendation to the judge to do so. If that happens, the handbook states, the participant's case is placed on a court docket for further court proceedings.

Blakeman said a participant can be terminated from the program for a combination of several reasons, from not attending classes to missing required meetings.

Once a participant has been terminated from the Drug Court program, they are not allowed to enter Drug Court again.

Drug Court staff and participants work together to develop individual program plans with specific responsibilities and goals with timetables.

Participants will report directly to their Drug Court judge, according to the AOC press release, who then rewards progress or sanctions noncompliance.

"When participants successfully complete the program, charges may be dismissed through diversion, or conditional discharge may be granted through probation," the AOC release states.

Participants who complete the Drug Court program will be honored with a graduation ceremony and a plaque.

Blakeman said Drug Court participants will meet twice each month with him, the judge - either George or Anderson - and Drug Court Program Supervisor Jennifer Caulk to go over the status of their progress in the program. At those appearances, Blakeman said, participants will have to submit proof that they are completing the requirements of the program.

Drug Court appearances are closed to the public, Blakeman said.

Blakeman said the Drug Court team will meet once a month to discuss current participants' progress and potential new participants. If any new participants have been recommended to the program, he said, the team will perform an assessment of their drug dependency. Drug Court judges, he said, will ultimately say who is and isn't allowed into the program.

Blakeman said the Drug Court program offers those who abuse drugs a chance to avoid going to prison. However, Blakeman said, the program's requirements are quite strict.

"It holds them accountable," he said.

After completing the program, Blakeman said, the goal is for participants to be free of their addiction to drugs and become contributing members of society.

"That's the goal of this," he said, "... for them to be drug free."

For more information about Taylor County's Drug Court program, visit http://courts.ky.gov/stateprograms/drugcourt.

- Staff Writer Calen McKinney can be reached at 465-8111 Ext. 235 or by e-mail at reporter@cknj.com. Comment on this story at www.cknj.com.