Pubdate: Sun 09/26 1999
Source: St. Petersburg Times (FL)
Copyright: 1999 St. Petersburg Times
Section: Front Page
Author: Joe Newman, Times Staff Writer


After years of resisting the national trend toward special drug courts, the 
county's top criminal justice officials say the timing may be right to 
start the program in Pinellas County.

In the past officials have worried about the cost and caseload of a drug 
court - which sends nonviolent offenders into treatment instead of jail - 
as well as the availability of secure treatment centers.

But those problems may no longer be an obstacle, say some of the officials 
who oversee the county's court system.

There are two factors behind the change of direction: the upcoming addition 
of a new judge to the Pinellas-Pasco circuit in January and St. 
Petersburg's push to establish a drug abuse treatment center at the site of 
a former nursing home.

State Attorney Bernie McCabe said he's willing to give drug court a chance 
if it is done right.

"I don't want to do it just because it's popular," McCabe said. "This 
county, to my way of thinking, has always taken the position not to do 
something unless you can do it right. I don't want to get into drug court 
unless we do it right.

McCabe said his position on drug court has not changed. He has always 
wanted a secure treatment facility to be part of the program, he said.

The St. Petersburg center might fill that need, McCabe said.

St. Petersburg officials are searching nationally for a not-for-profit 
agency to operate a 75-bed substance abuse center at 1735 Dr. M.L. King 
(Ninth) St. S.  The city spent $100,000 for the vacant building that used 
to be a nursing home.

If the county creates a drug court nonviolent offenders who would benefit 
from treatment could be sent to the facility.

Susan Schaeffer, chief judge of the Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Court said all 
of the key criminal justice officials are tentatively supporting the 
creation of a drug court. She said she, McCabe, Sheriff Everett Rice and 
Public Defender Bob Dillinger have discussed the program with St. 
Petersburg police Chief Goliath Davis.

Schaeffer said the city must prove to her that the treatment center will be 

"We have got to be assured we have the personnel to handle that portion of 
the program," Schaeffer said. "I'm not of the mind to have a drug court 
just because it's in vogue"

Once the drug court defendants are sent to the treatment center they "just 
can't say, 'I don't want to do that (receive treatment),' walk out, buy 
drugs and reoffend," she said. "We've told Goliath if he gets the place and 
can show us that he has the personnel to manage this - to do the treatment 
- - I will designate a judge and we will have a drug court."

At least at first, the drug court would only operate in Pinellas County, 
Schaeffer said because there aren't enough criminal court judges in Pasco 
to allow her to shift one to drug court.

In a typical drug court, one judge is assigned to oversee a strict program 
of treatment and supervision for nonviolent felony drug defendants. Most 
drug courts require participants to obtain a high school equivalency 
diploma, stay employed and meet financial obligations, such as child support.

They are also required make frequent court appearances and undergo regular 
drug testing. Those who fail drug tests or don't follow the rules go to jail.

Supporters of drug courts range from President Clinton to Gov. Jeb Bush, 
whose anti-drug initiative calls for spending $330,000 to help create more 
of the programs.

The flat drug court started in 1989 as an experiment by then Dade State 
Attorney Janet Reno. Their popularity grew as court officials saw them as 
an alternative to filling up jails with addicts.

A U.S. Department of Justice survey last year found the country had more 
than 400 drug courts operating or being planned. Hillsborough County 
started its drug court in 1992.

A study by American University found only 4 percent of the people who 
completed a drug court sentence were arrested again. On the other hand, 45 
percent of the defendants convicted on drug charges and not given treatment 
ended up back in jail within two to three years.

Though Pinellas County doesn't have an official drug court it already has 
similar pretrial intervention programs that involve treatment and regular 
drug tests, Schaeffer said.

"We have that; its just what we don't have is one judge who has nothing but 
drug court cases," she said.

However, defense attorney Douglas De Vlaming said Pinellas County is 
"behind the power curve" in establishing a bona fide drug court.

"My experience in dealing with people who have problems with addiction is, 
it's a disease and you can control it, but there's no cure for it", he 
said. "I've had some experience with Hillsborough County's drug court and, 
to met it's the right approach.

You can't put everybody who is sick behind bars." 
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