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DRUG COURT: HELPING KICK THE HABIT

By Scott Graves

Triplicate staff writer

A few pain pills.

Thats all it took to send Crescent City resident Michael McGilvary back to jail for seven days.

Steve Blackenship missed one Narcotics Anonymous meeting and spent a week behind bars.

Swift punishment for such small indiscretions. But thats the way it is in Del Norte Countys Drug Court, one of a growing number of experimental rehabilitation programs throughout the country.

Drug court tricked me into sobriety, It saved my life, said Blackenship, 27, of Crescent City.

He sat with his fiance and her two kids on the steps of the county court house one recent Tuesday after graduating from Drug Court. He had stayed clean and sober for seven months.

That is a long time for someone like Blackenship, who was arrested for selling meth in 1997.

Two choices

When he violated his probation, he had two choices: two years in prison or Drug Court.

He chose Drug Court, thinking he could stay clean long enough to satisfy the judge and then return to using drugs. He found sobriety was much better.

I found that people actually care that you straighten your life out, he said. I would recommend it to anyone.

Drug courts, like that in Del Norte County, are based on the premise that drug addicts and alcoholics can change.

Instead of immediate punishment for drug-related offenses, Drug Court offers addicts treatment.

This is the best thing to come around in the 20 years Ive been practicing law, said Crescent City Attorney Scott Hoxeng, who often represents addicts in Drug Court.

Getting support

For many, this is the first real responsibility they have had in their lives, Hoxeng said. They get the support they need and the tools to kick their habit.

Hoxeng admitted there were a few clients of his that he had little hope for. I have written off some clients expecting them to end up in jail, but they have beat the odds set against them.

Participants have a strong incentive to do well: If they get clean and stay that way for a significant time, their sentence is dropped. In some cases, the charges are deleted from their permanent records.

About 100 people have graduated from Del Norte Countys Drug Court since its inception more than two years ago, officials said. There are currently 120 addicts in the program. Officials anticipate that 80 percent will graduate clean and sober.

How it Works

Based closely on a successful national model, Del Norte Countys Drug Court began informally under Superior Court Judge Robert Weir in 1998. It focuses the efforts of an entire team on moving addicts through the criminal justice system using a performance contract.

The team consists of the two Superior Court judges, the district attorney, public defenders, probation officers, drug treatment staff from the countys Drug and Alcohol Services, and community-based treatment providers.

People who are charged with selling, manufacturing or transportation of illegal drugs are not allowed in Drug Court, said Del Norte County District Attorney Bob Drossel.

Our policy is to only allow those charged with simply possession or being under the influence, Drossel said.

Those who qualify can enter Drug Court one of two ways: The D.A. can offer a person Drug Court in exchange for a guilty plea prior to going to trial; or a judge can include Drug Court as part of probation for someone after he or she has been convicted.

High Standards

Drug Court is not easy. Most participants will work harder at staying sober than they have ever worked in their lives.

I missed one (substance abuse) meeting and was sent to jail for seven days, Blackenship said. It was real discouraging, but I never missed another meeting.

Probation officers conduct a drug test on each participant two days before weekly court appearances, either on Tuesdays or Thursdays.

The participants must also show proof they have attend a prescribed number of drug treatment meetings the week before as well as personal and group counseling sessions. The number of meetings and frequency of drug tests decrease the longer a person stays clean and sober.

A dirty test or failure to attend the required meetings is an instant go to jail for seven days card. By law, each person could be sentenced to a total of 90 days or be ordered to serve their original sentence.

Drug Court is not a criminal court, but more like a treatment court with the judge at the helm, said Jill Fullington, program coordinator with Del Norte Countys Drug and Alcohol Services.

Each person who enters the program is evaluated and then plugged into the program that works best for them, Fullington said.

Officials expect relapses.

We feel like weve hit a home run when everyone on that days calendar has a clean test, Fullington said.

Bo Seymour, the countys chief probation officer, added: We recognize that its an addiction problem and people are going to fall off the wagon. We send them to jail for a dry out period, then we try again.

Addict Jason Callick, 25, who was charged with being under the influence of a controlled substance, relapsed twice during his participation in Drug Court. He graduated from the program two weeks ago after staying clean and sober for nine months.

Callick credited Drug Court, and especially the people at Drug and Alcohol Services for saving his life.

They dont give up on you, he said.

He was attending Thursdays Drug Court to support several friends who are still in the program.

We all help each other out. We trade phone numbers and support each other through the program, he said.

Accountability

On a recent Tuesday, a Smith River woman stood before Judge Weir as a probation officer read the results of her latest efforts to stay clean: all meetings attended, drug test negative.

Weir smiled broadly, a break from his normally stoic demeanor, and congratulated the woman, a recovering drug addict.

Im seeing signs that youre turing a corner. Keep up the good work, Weir said.

The crowded courtroom erupted with applause as the smiling woman left the courtroom.

Just moments before, a disappointed Weir had ordered another woman to jail for seven days.

The purpose is to break them out of their addictive pattern, he said.

Is Drug Court working?

Im cautiously optimistic, he said.

He added that other drug courts that have been in operation longer have shown positive results.

Substance abusers seem to have the hardest time getting straight, Weir said. I wasnt satisfied with the old way. Too many people were falling through the cracks and not getting the help they needed.

The old way, he explained, was to give someone probation, without any support or services to break their addiction, and then put them in jail for a long time after they violated probation two or three times.

Tax Dollars Saved?

Its hard to say just how much Drug Court costs taxpayers, said Ben Angove, Del Norte Countys Chief Administrative Officer.

However, Angove estimated that its a little more than $40,000.

The county began a formal version of Drug Court with a $40,000 grant from the states Office of Criminal Justice. The county received a $15,000 grant last year, with the county making up the difference, Angove said.

To help save money, the county chose not to hire new personnel to run the program, but use existing staff from different departments, he said.

Still, some people, especially those in law enforcement, question whether Drug Court is a good use of taxpayers money.

Its the right program for people who are serious about getting better, said county jail Commander Tony Luis. But you have to draw the line when a person is sent to jail seven, eight or 12 times.

Luis counted at least four participants who had received a seven-day jail term 10 or 12 times one individual had been to jail 14 times.

It cost county taxpayers approximately $253 to house and care for a participant for seven days, Luis said. (Inmates are allowed to attend county treatment programs while in jail.)

But Angove said that is a small price to pay now to save more money in the future.

It costs about $30,000 a year to keep a person in the county jail, Angove said.

And if the jail gets too full, he added, another would have to be built which would cost the county millions.

A more immediate benefit of placing a person in jail for seven days, no matter how many times, is that that person is not out committing more crimes, Angove said.

Although Sheriff Jim Maready was concerned about the financial impact of Drug Court on his department and his staff, he generally supported the program.

I guess its a work in progress. It just needs some fine tuning, Maready said.

One More Try

To help decrease the number of chronic relapsers, Judge Weir and others recently implemented an intensive program that includes an increased level of treatment.

Each chronic relapser must attend nine meetings a week, instead of the usual seven, and attend more one-on-one counseling sessions. Each participant ends up spending about 40 hours a week getting treatment.

If a participant fails the drug test, he or she gets 21 days in jail.

Weve identified seven chronic relapsers in the group, Weir said. So far, five have started staying clean.

Phoebe Norberry, 37, is one of them. She fights her addiction to meth and alcohol daily.

I was relapsing and relapsing and relapsing, Norberry said. Ive been clean now for three months. Im getting better one day at a time.

 


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