Pubdate: Wed, 31 Dec 2003
Source: News & Advance, The (VA)
Copyright: 2003 Media General
Author: Bill Freehling, Lynchburg News & Advance


If battles are won by taking prisoners, the United States is
dominating the war being waged on drugs.

The number of drug offenders in federal prisons increased about 2,000
percent between 1970 and 2002. Drug arrests rose 66 percent in
Virginia between 1990 and 1997. And in Lynchburg, there were nearly
six times more drug arrests in 1999 than 1980.

But with incarceration costs soaring and a majority of drug offenders
ending up back in prison soon after their release, some are
questioning the tactics being used to address the problem.

"It's like a cancer," said Crystel Holbein, whose drug-addict son is
in federal prison for possessing methamphetamine. "It's not gonna go
away putting a Band-Aid on it."

According to the American Society of Addiction Medicine, 60 percent of
untreated drug offenders are re-arrested within a year of regaining
their freedom.

"You deal with the same people over and over and over," said Lt. K.T.
Swisher, who leads the Lynchburg Police Department's Vice and
Narcotics Unit.

Long sentences, which are more common in the federal system, mean
expensive bills. It costs the Virginia Department of Corrections about
$22,000 to house each prisoner for a year.

In the midst of a budget crisis, that's not good news for state
lawmakers. But solutions are harder to find than problems.

"It's a big issue, and it needs to be addressed," said Rich Mosure,
who runs Lynchburg's 28-day Arise residential drug rehabilitation
program. "I don't know if society is ready to address it."

Some have proposed legalizing drugs, with most of the discussion
falling on marijuana. But with studies showing marijuana users
switching to harder drugs later in life, and countless violent crimes
being committed by people on drugs, legalization is not likely anytime

A more plausible solution, one that has grown in popularity, is drug
courts. There are now 23 such courts in Virginia - the first started
in 1995 to serve the Roanoke area - and more than 1,000 nationwide.

The courts are for nonviolent drug users, people for whom treatment
seems a better option. According to Lynchburg police data, just 26
percent of the drug arrests between 1984 and 1999 were for
distribution. The remaining 74 percent were for possession.

People who qualify for drug courts go through intensive supervision
that includes random urine screens and frequent meetings with
probation officers and judges. Those who fail to meet supervision
terms are kicked into the regular criminal justice system.

President Bush praised drug courts in a 2001 letter to the National
Association of Drug Court Professionals, calling them "effective and
cost-efficient tools that enable non-violent drug offenders to enter
into drug treatment programs rather than prison." In the letter, he
pledged $50 million to support drug courts in the 2002 budget.

Plans are in the works for a juvenile drug court in the 24th judicial
district - Campbell, Amherst, Bedford and Nelson counties as well as

Ten local officials - including a judge, defense attorney, police
officer and two prosecutors - attended a series of three training
sessions this year offered by the federal Juvenile Drug Court Planning

A pilot drug court is likely to start in the Amherst County Juvenile
and Domestic Relations Court by March, said Lawrence Janow, the judge
of that court and one of the people who went through the training.

At first, the court will probably be for only Amherst County juvenile
offenders and will require no additional funds. The court would meet
at a separate time from the regular docket, perhaps just one day a

"We felt that we needed to start small," Janow said. "We needed to
make sure we could do one of them right."

If the program works, Janow said, it could eventually serve juveniles
all across the 24th district. At that point, a federal grant would be
necessary. An adult drug court could be in the cards if the juvenile
program reduces recidivism and delinquency.

According to a report by the Virginia Drug Court Association (VDCA),
the felony recidivism rate for drug court graduates is about 6 percent
within three years of release, compared with 50 percent for Virginia
drug offenders sent to prison or probation.

Drug courts also lead to fewer drug-exposed babies being born and
reduce the number of children in foster care, said VDCA President
Patty Gilbertson.

But the courts are labor-intensive, and they're not cheap. Each drug
court participant costs the state about $5,000 per year.

Gilbertson said the Department of Criminal Justice Services has
traditionally provided the majority of drug court funds. With that
department stretched thin like most others, some courts are relying on
local tax dollars or in-kind donations.

Ultimately, the courts might save money by preventing long-term
criminal behavior, Janow said. The cost of handling each drug court
participant is less than 25 percent the expense of incarcerating
adults and 10 percent for juveniles.

"It may very well be money well spent," said Mike Doucette, who
prosecutes both federal and state crimes for the Lynchburg
Commonwealth's Attorney's Office. Doucette admits he first thought of
the courts as "touchy-feely" but has since changed his mind.

Henry Ruben Nelson II, who is Holbein's son, wishes a drug court had
been available for him. A first-time offender, he got 87 months in
federal prison last year after being busted carrying a pound of

Every day he spends at the Petersburg Federal Correctional
Institution, Nelson falls further behind on child-support payments and
leaves his wife at home raising three children.

Nelson admits his guilt and plans never to take another drug again.
But the 39-year-old Lynchburg man has several more years behind bars
to think about what he did. He has already made up his mind about one

"What we really need to do is declare war on the war on drugs," Nelson
wrote in an April letter from Petersburg. 
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