Pubdate: Fri, 05 Jun 2015
Source: Sun, The (Yuma, AZ)
Copyright: 2015 The Sun
Author: James Gilbert


The Yuma County Superior Court launched its drug court program 17 
years ago to stop the abuse of alcohol and other drugs and related 
criminal activity. Over that time, the program has provided hundreds 
of nonviolent offenders with an alternative sentence that helps them 
get their lives back on track.

"It has been phenomenally successful since its inception," said 
Benjamin DeCorse, a probation services supervisor for the Yuma County 
Adult Probation Department. "These people are back in the community. 
They are taxpayers again rather than tax-drainers. They are 
maintaining employment and they are now being good role models for 
their children and families, so it is a win-win for everybody."

Established in May 1998 by then-Presiding Superior Court Judge Tom 
Cole, DeCorse said drug court was the first specialty court in Yuma 
County and one of the earliest in the nation. Throughout the years, 
some 1,170 people have participated in the program, with 777 graduating.

"This was our first specialized program, but it is a very progressive 
program. It kind of went against the grain of traditional probation," 
DeCorse said.

"People initially thought of it as too huggy-feely. People would call 
it names, but it was ahead of its time. It is probably our most 
successful program."

DeCorse added that 85 percent of the current participants are 
employed and 93 percent of the probation fees for participants who 
are on intensive probation are being collected and 82 percent for 
individuals on supervised probation.

In explaining drug court, DeCorse said it is a highly-specialized 
team process within the Yuma County Superior Court that addresses the 
needs of highrisk offenders who are typically on probation after 
being convicted in nonviolent drug-related cases.

Drug court is currently presided over by Superior Court Judges Lisa 
Bleich and Stephen Rouff.

They each head a team consisting of a program coordinator, court 
staff, attorneys, probation officers, counselors, treatment 
professionals and surveillance officers who work together to support 
and monitor the recovery of the participants.

Also, once a week each of the teams meet with their respective judges 
and prosecutor to discuss each person in the program, as well as 
those who could be candidates.

Two of the drug court's former program coordinators, Justice of the 
Peace Greg Stewart and Justice of the Peace pro tem Yolonda Torok, 
both of Precinct 1, have also gone on to judgeship positions.

The program initially started off as a 12-month-long program, but has 
since developed into an 18-month-long program. DeCorse said it is 
extremely rigorous in that it requires constant supervision based on 
frequent drug testing and court appearances, along with tightly 
structured regimens of treatment and recovery services.

"Just because an offender is a drug user doesn't mean they need to be 
in drug court," DeCorse said. "The program is for the high-risk, 
high-need drug users where traditional treatment didn't work for them 
in the past."

While the program is meant as an alternative form of sentencing in 
which the participant can avoid jail or prison, DeCorse said due to 
the level of supervision, criminal proceedings and delayed sentences 
can be reinstated if the participant chooses not to comply with the program.

DeCorse said what really makes Yuma County's drug court stand out 
from others across the state is that, while they do occasionally have 
to send participates to outside agencies for treatment, the program 
has certified substance abuse counselors who are full-time employees 
of the Yuma County Adult Probation Department.

"It really makes it unique, because the probation officer can walk 
down the hall and staff a case with the probationer's counselor," 
DeCorse said. "There is so much support for a drug court participant 
to be successful."

To be eligible to participate in drug court, DeCorse said the 
individual cannot have any prior felonies, cannot owe any restitution 
to a victim and cannot have previously participated in the program. 
The only thing that would disqualify someone from taking part in the 
program is if they have committed a violent felony offense while on probation.

"Another reason why a person could be discharged from the program is 
a basic unwillingness to complete the program," Decorse said. "Rarely 
is it because of drug use."

Participants are divided into two categories, with the first being 
what is known as Track 1. DeCorse explained that currently about 10 
percent of the drug court's participants fall into this 
pre-conviction category.

In this category, once the participant successfully completes the 
program, the charges against them are dismissed.

About 90 percent of the participants, however, DeCorse said, are in 
what is known as Track 2, which is the post-conviction Drug Court Program.

The participant is placed in this category after they are sentenced 
and serving a term of probation, which can either be supervised or intensive.

DeCorse said Track 2 participants can be sentenced to drug court 
either at sentencing by the judge or referred to the program later by 
their probation officer.

"Most of the cases in drug court have been referred by probation 
officers. There is a great need, and we can fill up drug court pretty 
quickly," DeCorse said. "It is a very intensive program. If the drug 
court team thinks the person can be helped by the program, and the 
judge agrees, they will be placed in drug court."

Unfortunately, DeCorse said, some of the participants accepted into 
drug court are unwilling to change.

Instead of making the most of the opportunity, some wind up back in 
court and ask the judge to let them serve out their sentence rather 
than be placed back into the program, because to them it is easier.

"There are two reasons why people don't change. They either don't 
want to, or they don't know how," DeCorse said. "Facing your demons 
is scary and can be a daunting task."

There have been a total of 63 graduation ceremonies held since the 
program, which has a successful completion rate of about 60 to 75 
percent, started.

The ceremonies are held quarterly, with one happening in February, 
May, August and November.

"I think even if this program just made a difference in one person's 
life, it was worth it," DeCorse said.

At first the graduations, which are modeled after high school 
graduation ceremonies, took place at the Historic Yuma Courthouse, 
but they quickly outgrew the courtroom being used. Decorse said the 
program then had to use cafeterias and auditoriums at various schools 
before eventually securing its current location at Calvary Temple Church.
- ---
MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom