Pubdate: Sun, 21 Nov 2010
Source: Salt Lake Tribune (UT)
Copyright: 2010 The Salt Lake Tribune
Author: Tony Semerad
Bookmark: (Drug Courts)


Tears slide down his hardened face as the 41-year-old drug addict and 
convicted felon begins to cry about his estranged children.

"It hurts so bad," Jason Park finally says, breaking a temporary 
quiet outside 3rd District Judge Randall Skanchy's drug court in Salt 
Lake City. Now in their early 20s, "my kids are so disgusted with me, 
they don't want nothing to do with me."

Homeless and living at a downtown shelter, Park clings to every word 
that might bring a chance, possibly his last, at redemption. During a 
long drug-use career, "I'd done a little bit of marijuana, a little 
bit of coke, but meth is the grabber," he says. "That's the one that 
really pulls you in"

Park is not just another addict being led through fragile recovery by 
one of Utah's 52 drug courts. He also is symbolic of a widening trend 
in the state's judicial system as it copes with a glut of 
drug-related crimes and repeat offenders driven by addiction.

Utah drug courts have rehabilitated thousands of hard-core users, 
dramatically reducing their recidivism compared with those stuck 
behind bars. The idea is to steer users away from chronic criminal 
activity with a classic carrot-and-stick strategy: a blend of jail 
time and fines coupled with positive reinforcement, intense therapy 
and graduated stages of freedom in exchange for staying sober.

Based largely on drug-court successes, Utah will launch a separate 
pilot program known as Early Criminal Resolution in 2011 to divert a 
much larger stream of criminal defendants toward alternative prosecution.

This program will apply key drug-court principles of accountability, 
supervision and therapeutic assessment to about 4,000 other offenders 
a year in one of the biggest experiments of its kind in the country, 
presiding 3rd District Judge Robert Hilder says.

Starting Jan. 3, he adds, "we are going to change how we do business 
in the criminal courts."

Overloaded, Underfunded

Yet evidence suggests that 15 years after Utah created its first drug 
court, drug-related crimes remain the primary business of the state's 
criminal system as it grapples with successive drug epidemics: 
cocaine, methamphetamine, and, now, combined spikes in the abuse of 
heroin, prescription pills and so-called designer drugs.

And just as the latest surge is pushing felony drug filings to record 
levels, the number of defendants being accepted into drug courts is 
on a three-year decline, due largely to a lack of government dollars 
and therapy options.

"I wish we could bring in more resources to do more in drug courts," 
Hilder says, "but we just don't have it."

Nearly 400 offenders are now in the 3rd District felony drug court 
(713 statewide). But with demand growing, the choices that judges 
have for referring offenders to rehabilitation -- a key element of 
the strategy -- are shrinking, hit hard by the recession.

The Salvation Army, a crucial provider of residential drug treatment 
for destitute men, officially shut down its 51-bed program at the end 
of September. "We simply couldn't find the funding to maintain it," 
says Maj. Richard Greene, Salt Lake Basin coordinator for the group.

Similar programs, funded by cash-strapped cities and charities, face 
stagnant or contracting budgets.

On a given day, offenders by the dozens trot out of jail in chains 
and stand at a drug-court podium. In gentle tones, the judge urges 
them to keep the faith, although no treatment beds are available. He 
then asks how many days they have stayed sober and all in the 
courtroom applaud. The bailiff escorts them back to jail.

"We're reaching a point of critical mass," says 3rd District Judge 
Mark S. Kouris, a drug-court jurist. "It's gotten to the point where 
they're going to say, 'I'm opting out of this program. Something's 
not working.' It's becoming a bigger and bigger problem, and I don't 
know how we're going to address it."

By various measures -- cases, charges, convictions, defendants -- 
drug-related offenses account for a quarter to slightly less than 
half of all criminal matters handled by district courts across the 
state, according to a computer analysis by The Salt Lake Tribune of a 
million-plus court filings in the past 13 years.

That's a far higher share than any other kind of crime, and the 
numbers reflect only charges filed under laws directly aimed at 
controlled substances. Add in the thousands of property crimes, 
forgeries, assaults, incidents of disorderly conduct and criminal 
mischief, and traffic-related cases involving drug use, and the 
picture is even more stark.

"The successes of drug-court interventions are legion, but they're on 
the back end," says Scott Reed, chief of the criminal-justice 
division for the Utah Attorney General's Office and a member of the 
state's policy-guiding Substance Abuse Advisory Council.

"We are still a highly susceptible, highly vulnerable, 
drug-dependent, drug-induced society," he says. "The best indicator 
is the pill mentality that we've infused into this new generation. 
It's not cocaine and it's not meth, so it's somehow OK to take and to 
take a lot of it."

Birth of Drug Courts

On the national scene, drug courts began in the late 1980s as a 
reaction to the explosion of crime surrounding crack cocaine. Utah's 
first drug court appeared in 1995 in Salt Lake County, meeting 
outright suspicion in some quarters.

"The judges were slow to come around," Salt Lake City attorney Greg 
Skordas recalls, "because they were used to what was happening before."

So was law enforcement.

"At the time, it was the joke of the D.A.'s Office," says Judge 
Kouris, a former narcotics prosecutor. "We thought this would be a 
nice place for dealers and addicts to actually meet up, and [here] we 
were clapping for these people we thought should be in jail.

"But," Kouris says, "I think the mentality has completely changed since then."

Now, the drug-court approach is applied across Utah, ranging from 
juvenile-drug courts and municipal-level courts that handle 
misdemeanor offenders to adult felony drug courts in all eight of 
Utah's judicial districts.

The average stint for a drug-court participant these days is about 18 
months as judges, prosecutors, police, caseworkers and defense 
attorneys craft the best strategy for each case. The court's tone is 
compassionate rather than adversarial.

"Nobody has the role of jamming anybody up," 3rd District Judge Deno 
Himonas says.

Participants move through several phases based on their honesty, 
compliance and ability to stay clean. When they fail -- as many 
inevitably do -- they face one- and two-week stays in jail or fines. 
The better they do, the greater their liberty to work and function in 
society. All receive tailored therapy, undergo scores of 
urine-analysis tests and appear frequently in court as they progress 
through stages of recovery.

Offenders are saturated in encouragement and small rewards -- ranging 
from applause, candy bars and status bracelets to a gradual easing of 
how often they must show up in court or submit to drug tests. Many 
come to see the judge as a friend.

"It is more emotionally taxing because you are closely connected to 
the individuals," Himonas says. "But because we've had lots of 
success, on balance, you walk out of there generally feeling pretty 
good about the process."

Time to Grow Up

Drug-court prosecutor Chris Bown says the courts seek to impart basic 
life skills to the defendants, many of whom hail from shattered families.

"It seems childish at times, but it's a form of parenting, where 
we're teaching things like honesty, self-control, integrity," Bown 
says. "A lot of people have never experienced that or have gotten so 
engrossed in their drug experience that they never learned it. We're 
teaching them how to be adults again."

Through the years, this holistic, therapy-based approach has been 
expanded to juveniles and families in crisis, defendants with 
mental-health issues, even veterans.

"We call them problem-solving courts, and that's what the focus ought 
to be," says Rick Schwermer, assistant Utah court administrator and a 
point person for drug courts. "If we solve the problem, the defendant 
won't be back."

According to Schwermer and other advocates, drug courts have moved 
decisively out of their pilot phase to a proven model that turns 
around lives, reunites families, reduces repeat offenses and -- 
perhaps most important for policymakers -- saves taxpayer money.

The days of "just say no," trumpeted in the early 1980s by then-first 
lady Nancy Reagan, have given way to evidence-based policy. 
"Legislators have learned not just what sounds good but what works," 
Schwermer says. "And, hey, guess what? This works."

The state has begun a lengthy process of certifying all its drug 
courts and training staff to ensure they comply with established 
national standards, an effort led by former 3rd District Judge Dennis 
Fuchs, a pioneer of Utah drug courts.

High Risk, High Reward

Drug courts appear to work best for offenders who are at the highest 
risk for committing crimes, with the longest histories of drug 
addiction. Prosecutors screen out offenders with a history of serious 
violence, but also eliminate casual drug consumers for fear of 
turning early-stage users into hardened addicts by mixing the two.

"It's kind of funny sometimes because participants, when they're 
standing there at the podium, they want to minimize their drug 
history," Judge Skanchy says. "And so they come real close to not 
being accepted into drug court until somebody can work them over and 
say, 'Listen, let's be honest with your addictions.' "

Participants whose drug abuse has threatened to wreck their families, 
officials say, often have a greater incentive to succeed.

Whitney Zobell, 23, a former heroin and cocaine addict, walks to the 
drug-court podium for what everyone in the room hopes will be the 
last time. The Utah County mother has her 9-month-old son, Dawson, on her hip.

Zobell is the last of 16 participants to address a large group of 
family members, friends and court officials gathered at a joyous and 
tearful graduation.

Judge Himonas looks on, beaming.

Zobell went through heroin withdrawal in jail. She had to ask guards 
to loosen her shackles as she grew more pregnant. Her three years in 
drug court -- including seven months as a fugitive -- took her 
through three treatment programs before the fourth, House of Hope, 
"saved" her life.

She turns to Himonas and smiles: "I've never had anybody believe in 
me like you did."
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MAP posted-by: Richard Lake