Pubdate: Fri, 01 Jul 2005
Source: News-Item, The (PA)
Copyright: 2005 The News Item
Author: Kimberly Long, Staff Writer
Bookmark: (Drug Courts)

North'd Court Officials Impressed After Visiting Lycoming Drug Facilities

Northumberland County court officials summarized their experience 
Wednesday with one simple word: moving.

Several county officials visited Lycoming County's drug court and 
pre-release center, two programs being pushed for Northumberland County.

"We went to drug court itself for drug court graduation," President 
Judge Robert Sacavage said. "That was a rather moving event, because 
we saw various people who had come to the drug court and were going 
to be leaving supervision.

"It was rather moving, the humanity of it, to see how their lives 
were under addiction, and how they improved with the drug court 
intervention," Sacavage said.

Along with Sacavage, Court Administrator Brandy Yasenchak, Chief 
Adult Probation Officer Michael Potteiger, Warden Ralph "Rick" Reish, 
Assistant District Attorney Michael Toomey, Commissioner Frank 
Sawicki and special counsel Mike Rutt, also made the trip.

Sacavage said Judge Nancy Butts, who oversees the drug court, shared 
a great deal of information, and Northumberland County officials saw 
how preliminary matters take place in various departments, such as 
public defender, district attorney, and drug and alcohol.

Goal: Stop Abuse

According to the Office of National Drug Control Policy's Web site, 
the mission of drug courts is to stop the abuse of alcohol and other 
drugs and related criminal activity by offenders. Drug courts handle 
cases involving drug-addicted offenders through an extensive 
supervision and treatment program. In exchange for successful 
completion of the program, the court may dismiss a defendant's 
original charge, reduce or set aside a sentence, offer some lesser 
penalty or a combination of these.

In Northumberland County, it is estimated the drug court will involve 
20 to 25 offenders a year.

Sacavage said most of the drug court participants entered the program 
to avoid jail time, but once in the system, saw how life could be 
without addiction.

The setup is similar to what Sacavage said he has been advocating, 
and Wednesday's visit only encouraged him more.

"It boosted our confidence," he said.

Funding Possible

The county recently submitted a grant application to the Pennsylvania 
Commissionon Crime and Delinquency. During a meeting earlier this 
month, Sacavage told the commissioners that the county's application 
appears to be favorable.

The $230,000 grant, which is renewable each year, would pay for the 
entire cost of the program, except for the salary, estimated at 
$30,000, and benefits of a new probation officer. That figure is 
based on a probation officer intern's salary.

Savings to the county if a drug court is implemented have been 
estimated at $162,000.

The goals of drug court are to reduce prison overcrowding, reduce 
recidivism, rely heavily on a combination of treatment and intense 
court supervision, rely on existing personnel within the court, 
district attorney's office and public defender's office, improve 
public safety and utilize general fund money more efficiently.

Yasenchak said Lycoming County has had a drug court that meets every 
Wednesday for eight years, and the numbers show it is making a difference.

"Of all the people they admit into drug court, roughly 60 percent 
graduate," she said. "Roughly 17 percent who graduate start using drugs again."

Those numbers are encouraging, even if there are a handful of 
offenders who return to old habits, Yasenchak said.

Graduates Speak

During Wednesday's graduation, two offenders completed the program. 
The two stood up and thanked their parents, the judge and those 
involved with the drug court. One of the offenders even told a 
probation officer in charge of the program that he loved him. 
Yasenchak said she was moved, because it's rare when Northumberland 
County court officials see such happy endings.

Past graduates are also invited to attend the graduation ceremonies 
to speak and give support to other members. Yasenchak described the 
experience as an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting and a drug court combined.

Potteiger said the experience was a good example of what his job is 
supposed to be.

"In sitting there looking at the probation and parole's view, it was 
a very positive experience," Potteiger said. "To me, that's what it's 
all about. That's one of my jobs and responsibilities -- the 
rehabilitation of offenders."

Potteiger also commented about some of the numbers associated with 
the court, particularly the financial savings and the recidivism rate 
of only 12 percent. Because that rate is so low, Potteiger said drug 
court would provide a more effective transition for offenders going 
from being supervised to a home setting.

Hefty Savings

In looking at savings, Potteiger said Lycoming County saves 
approximately $36,000 a year for each offender in drug court. By 
incarcerating these offenders, Potteiger said Lycoming is saving 
about $250,000 a year.

"The drug court is the most effective tool in dealing with the 
rehabilitation of offenders with a serious addiction problem, because 
it provides structure," he said.

Potteiger explained that counties with drug courts all have the same 
model, but each modifies the program to uniquely fit its needs.

Pre-Release Center

After the group left the drug court, they next visited Lycoming's 
pre-release center. And although it is structured slightly 
differently than what Northumberland officials are hoping for, they 
said it was a worthwhile experience to visit.

Potteiger said the county currently has an opportunity to get an 
operational drug court at the same time a pre-release center is being 
developed and implemented. The drug court would be one component of 
the pre-release center.

In recent weeks, Sacavage approached the commissioners about the 
possibility of applying for a low-interest loan through the U.S. 
Department of Agriculture (USDA).

The USDA provides a 4.5 percent loan over a 40-year period to 
applicants who cannot obtain conventional bank financing, which 
Sacavage said would probably be the county's easiest criterion to 
meet based on current financial issues.

The center would house approximately 75, maybe more, low-risk county 
inmates who will be required to maintain a job and pay rent while 
residing at the facility. Inmates there also will have to buy and 
prepare their own food.

The USDA can provide a loan which would include site acquisition, 
infrastructure, construction, professional fees and the cost of equipment.

Under that program, the county would not be required to make a down 
payment, and no repayment until the operation is under way.

Estimated cost for the construction of a pre-release center is $2 
million, based on figures from neighboring counties that have already 
implemented a pre-release center.

The deadline to apply for the loan is July 1.

Court officials believe three sources of funding could pay for the 
pre-release center, including Act 35 supervision fees, the prisoners 
themselves and vending opportunities.

A pre-release center would be a secure facility providing 24-hour 
supervision to low-risk inmates. In addition to pre-release inmates, 
the county's entire work-release program would be operated out of the 
new facility, which would be managed under the adult probation office.

Transition Aid

The idea is that the center will provide a smoother transition for 
inmates who will soon re-enter the community.

A holding cell would also be located in the center. Large enough to 
hold four to five prisoners, it would be utilized by police and 
magisterial district judges for overnight holding purposes and on weekends.
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