Pitkin starts court program to battle drugs | AspenTimes.com

Pitkin starts court program to battle drugs

Chad Abraham

Opponents of America’s war on drugs have long held that among the many problems with the government’s efforts is how addicts who commit crimes are treated.Addicts locked up in state and federal facilities often fail to receive the kind of treatment necessary for recovery, critics contend. But a system of social justice in which drug and alcohol rehabilitation takes precedence over prison is gaining new respect across the nation and locally.To deal with crimes that arise from addiction, a drug court was implemented for the first time in Pitkin County on July 1.”What do you do with drug addicts?” said probation officer Jon Ezequelle. “I’ve never been to prison, but I understand drugs are as available in prison as they are out on the street.”Judge James Boyd of the 9th Judicial District supports the philosophy, citing the fact that the number of addicts in courtrooms continues to grow. Drug courts have existed for years in various parts of the United States, including Colorado.”Most judges are getting the sense – and there have been one or two studies that seem to support this statistically – that drug court programs have a higher success rate than just regular probation,” Boyd said.If people make it through drug court, he said, they are at lower risk to reoffend while they’re on probation. Participants are also at lower risk of committing a crime after they have completed probation.”In terms of the court’s role in overseeing the criminal justice system, it actually seems to be a real benefit,” Boyd said. “Even though it’s a pretty intense program when it’s going on, it reduces crime in the long run.”The drug court provides a structured program with a host of accountability and supervision measures. Those needing the most oversight see a probation officer once a week and call the officer every night after a prearranged curfew.They also have to complete rigorous outpatient therapy to deal with their addiction. The minimum amount of rehabilitation is four twice-a-week sessions that last nine weeks each, for a total of 36 weeks.Finally, defendants are required to check in with a judge on a routine basis. That is one of the main differences separating drug court and general criminal proceedings.The hearings are more informal, with the judge talking to defendants about their lives and their progress in getting sober. The judge also gets a report from the probation officer.”We check in with the defendant. We’ll also have the treatment provider there,” Boyd said.For individuals new to drug court, the system is designed to initially get the person over the denial of their addiction. The second step involves the defendant at least thinking about whether they have a drug problem.There are four phases in all, and each must be completed to the satisfaction of the judge and probation officer in order to proceed to the next. Those in the system can also be moved back a stage. The most successful participants eventually “graduate” from the drug court by mentoring people new to the system.Ezequelle told of one youth who entered drug court after he was carried out of a party in a comatose state from drinking.”He was a bright, bright boy. He mastered this material,” Ezequelle said.The teen, who was 18 when he was sentenced to drug court, was so successful that he was let out of the program after he completed the first step.He is now studying culinary arts and is employed in a high-end restaurant in the Eagle Valley. The youth still employs the sobriety techniques he learned in drug court, Ezequelle said.Failing drug tests or other parts of the program can result in immediate jail time or other punishment, including community service.This is also a departure, because changing a defendant’s sentence in the general court system requires a hearing and the person being convicted of a probation violation. Drug court is designed “so there’s intermediate sanctions” to save someone from ultimately landing in prison, Boyd said.”This program does not focus on drugs,” Ezequelle said. “It focuses on communication skills, on criminal thinking and life skills.”Chad Abraham’s e-mail address is chad@aspentimes.com