Drug Court a success so far
October 10, 2006
Barely one year after it began, Pitkin County’s progressive Drug Court program is working well, according to law enforcement officials.Drug Court provides an alternative to jail for nonviolent drug offenders. Though just four participants have graduated since the program started in Pitkin County in July 2005, officials say it’s working.If Drug Court participants fail, they usually face jail time. And Judge James Boyd, who presides over the program, said that completion is not measured by time, but by success.There are some 1,600 drug courts nationwide. Judge Peter Craven started Drug Court as a federally funded pilot program three years ago in Garfield County. Craven believed strongly in Drug Court, and since Craven’s death this summer, Boyd has carried the torch in all of the 9th Judicial District, which consists of Pitkin, Garfield and Rio Blanco counties.”The program is about having compassion for people struggling with addiction,” Boyd said.Many offenses, not just drug-related crimes, involve addiction problems. And the success rate of people with addiction problems is higher in Drug Court than in District Court because the program addresses both substance abuse and criminal behavior, he said.Cocaine and alcohol are the most commonly abused substances in Pitkin County, Boyd said. The Drug Court program is cheaper and better for the community than just putting drug offenders in jail.
“How are you doing?” Boyd asked from the bench, flashing a rare smile during an afternoon session of the special court. Unlike a formal court day, where defendants let lawyers do the talking, Drug Court is a chance for more personal interaction between the judge and the citizens.Participants don’t bring lawyers, but sit alongside their counselor, usually Eileen Kinkelaar from Aspen Counseling Center and Jon Ezequelle, the county probation officer. Participants report directly to the judge on their progress in recovery from their addiction. Compliance also requires attending a treatment program and a prescribed number of 12-step meetings.Boyd talks with participants about their employment and housing situations. While the court sessions are a chance for the judge to say “good job” if someone is compliant, it also is where the judge hands out sanctions – usually a few nights in jail – if the offender isn’t.”If there’s a mistake, there’s a consequence,” Boyd said. A prison term is out there for those who don’t comply.One participant who spoke under condition of anonymity said Drug Court is extremely motivating. The sanctions are difficult, and while Boyd is fair, he demands “100 percent compliance, and sometimes 110 percent.” Another participant I spoke with said the program gave him a 180-degree turnaround in life – “from bad to much better” – a life-changing experience. Between restitution and paying for supervised probation, he said the program was expensive, and that was a problem at first. But, compliance turned to a “willingness to change his ways” and the result have been good. The judges were tough but fair, he said, and the program taught him to respect authority.Participants must submit to random urinalysis. A probation officer assigns offenders a color, and they must call a phone number every day after 5 p.m. to see if their color comes up. If so, they undergo a urine test at a designated facility. Failure to show or a “dirty UA” has consequences. But, there are also rewards for success – such as the privilege of traveling. Some drug courts give participants incentives such as coupons for restaurants or movie theaters.”We hope to continue it and improve it,” Boyd said. There is no national standard, and the Drug Court program is constantly changing and improving. But, he said it was important for the criminal justice system to become more sophisticated about addiction issues.Jeff Kremer, director of the Aspen Counseling Center, said his services return a lot of bang for the buck and improve the health of the community by educating people and directly intervening with those in need of help.
“It is very humanistic,” Kremer said. His clinicians treat substance abusers as people who can get into the recovery process, not as hardened criminals, he said. “And if you want to play hardened criminal, we can go that route,” he said. Participants meet regularly with Kinkelaar, one of the counselors at Aspen Counseling Center.”The foundation of the treatment is abstinence,” Kinkelaar said. “And it is required that they attend [12-step meetings].”She uses a program of cognitive restructuring to guide clients to look at all of aspects their lives – not just substance abuse and crime, but personal relationships and work. “It’s looking at everything in your life and criminal behavior and substance abuse,” Kinkelaar said.”If they don’t do their homework, they don’t progress,” she said, and sanctions follow. Drug Court participants pay for their treatments and additional supervision fees out of pocket.”The federal philosophy seems to be ‘Lock ’em up,’ and I challenge anyone to prove that that works,” Ezequelle said. Prison doesn’t help substance abuse – it just creates cravings, he said. And even if there is treatment in prison, he said, it’s a false environment. It doesn’t ensure that the prisoner will stay clean and sober on the outside.Ezequelle called it “reality therapy” or “choice therapy” because many of his clients say they had no idea what they were doing was wrong and thought they had no choice but to continue destroying themselves. The most successful clients, Ezequelle said, are those with a lot to lose by failing Drug Court, and those who stick with 12-step meetings.”One key to the program is the judge,” Ezequelle said. “In no other probation do you visit with a judge every two weeks.”
Don Bird, Pitkin County’s jail administrator, is a big advocate of Drug Court: “My job is to keep people out of jail.”Bird called the criminal justice system at this end of the valley enlightened and said drug court is a big part of that. He said jail time for small-time offenders and traffic charges is unnecessary.Some inmates leave the Pitkin County Jail better than when they came in – clean and sober, maybe with some GED classes and 12-step meetings under their belt or other good use of their “enforced idleness” – but, Bird said, programs like Drug Court “address reason for arrest.””It’s a better use of our resources,” he said.Pitkin County Sheriff Bob Braudis called the program “proactive,” and said it is a useful tool for addressing people who constantly cycle through the system without any positive results.”I think it works wherever it is sincerely supported,” Braudis said. He called the program “cost-effective” and said it relieves the courts of an overwhelming number of cases.Braudis’ challenger in his re-election campaign, Rick Magnuson, has characterized the sheriff as being soft on drugs. Braudis used Drug Court as an example of being “reasonable and intelligent when it comes to the approach we make toward drug addicts.” He called it another sharp arrow in our quiver for community health and well-being.”As long as I’m sheriff, I will support drug and mental illness courts to the fullest extent,” Braudis said.Charles Agar’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.