Number of drug courts growing in state

PARKERSBURG – West Virginia Supreme Court Chief Justice Brent Benjamin said when he took office in 2005 there were only two fledging drug court programs in the state.

Today there are more than 30 and the number continues to grow.

Benjamin Friday was in Parkersburg where he was a speaker at a workshop on Adult/Juvenile Drug Courts. Sponsored by the West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals and Westbrook Health Services, the day-long workshop focused on the West Central Regional Adult Drug Court and Wood County Juvenile Drug Court.

More than 80 people connected to the program attended the session.

“When I was elected the drug courts were fledging programs. The concept of treatment courts was the dream of some of us, but really hadn’t been developed. Such programs had actually been in existence since the 1990s, starting in Florida, but but in 2005 we only had a fledgling drug court in the western part of the state and one in the northern Panhandle,” Benjamin said.

According to the chief justice, there was understanding that there must be a better way to deal with non-violent offenders with drug and alcohol addictions other than putting them in jail.

“Certainly we could handle the problem as it had traditionally been handled and simply warehouse, but that’s costly and by the time they come out, with what they learned while they were in there, we have a worse problem. It destroys families, neighborhoods, communities, it’s bad for the state and it’s a never-ending, growing cost factor that is really detrimental to the future. The concept of the drug courts was there has to be a better way of dealing with this problem,” Benjamin said.

“First we had to recognize it was a problem we had to deal with it. There was a large education curve in the state. We also had to find money somewhere,” the chief justice said, noting most of the funding for the statewide drug court programs came from grants.

“Drugs are not a class problem, they affect every socio-economic group in West Virginia. We have graduated from Adult Drug Court program two children of circuit court judges, a drug counselor who began misusing pain medication, physicians, housewives, the unemployed, the employed, basically every level, every demographic. Drugs are a problem we have to deal with because they aren’t going to go away and they are going to become more and more of a problem for our state,” Benjamin said.

The drug courts operate on hope, and the assumption lives will be changed.

“But we needed numbers to show that,” Benjamin said. “Our numbers were actually shocking.”

There have been more than 600 graduate in the state, with about 500 are in the programs now.

“The drug courts have saved taxpayers $17-$18 million a year in incarceration costs,” Benjamin said.

Reducing recidivism is also part of the story.

With juvenile drug courts, more than 60 percent graduate, and, of those, about 14 percent reoffend. With adult drug courts, more than 50 percent graduate, with a 9-10 percent recidivist rate. If they had been in prison, the rates are 70-80 percent for recidivism or more, the chief justice said.

“It’s about breaking the cycle, no more recidivism, and turning lives around, taking responsibility. You can’t win every case,” he said.

“We look at people not as numbers in the criminal justice system, but as fellow human beings. We look on them as people who not just supposed to be punished, but we look at them and hope they have within them the ability to turn their lives around,” Benjamin said.

Wood County Juvenile Court Judge/Family Court Judge Darren Tallman said the judges are part of the programs to issue sanctions but also to give incentives.

“They are referred to the juvenile court program as part of their disposition, they are “sentenced” to drug court, evaluated referred. A treatment team team works with them and their families. A lot of these kids really are diamonds in the rough, they may have just been in a situation where they had no structure, were never challenged. You can be sure sanctions are swift and sure, but we try to give more incentives. I’ve seen kids go from failing to the honor roll in school, we save these kids, for the first time in their lives they are proud of themselves. It’s the cutting edge of the legal system,” Tallman said.

The Wood County Juvenile Drug Court has 17 people in the program. It serves adjudicated delinquent and status offenders for non-violent misdemeanor or felony offenses or drug and alcohol related offenses ages 10-18. A treatment team including judicial, social service, law enforcement and education meets weekly to review each child’s case. The youth and their families receive therapy. The youth are provided with educational opportunities, random drug screening, community service opportunities, mandatory and intensive treatment/recovery services, probation supervision, and regular appearances before the judge.

“We have seen a reduction in drug and alcohol use,” said Judy Stephens, Juvenile Drug Court probation officer.

The Adult Drug Court Program clients are referred by the prosecutor’s office, attorneys, police officers and social service agencies. Program clients are provided with case management, help with getting a GED, counseling, parenting skills if needed, there is a women’s group, life skills, referral for mental health services as well as supervision including random and frequent drug testing, and home visits. Some clients are also monitored electronically through the Home Confinement Program.