April 06, 2015
With prison costs for minor drug offenses spiraling upward, Halifax County is being asked to create a special drug court to address addiction and cut down on jail time for non-violent defendants.
The drug treatment court — which would be funded largely with federal grant proceeds, with a 25 percent match by Halifax County — has been endorsed by Circuit Judge Joel Cunningham and a group of local law enforcement and courtroom representatives who came together in October to study the issue.
“It is the judgment of the planning committee that a drug court is urgently needed” in Halifax County, Cunningham wrote in a March 25 letter to county supervisors.
The committee, Cunningham added, “sincerely believes that a drug court is a ‘win-win’ proposition for county government, the courts, addicts and the community.”
Virginia has 23 drug courts which have shown success in reducing the rate of recidivism among drug users from a norm of 50-60 percent to 15 percent. Offenders are required to undergo intensive treatment for substance abuse and life counseling with an aim of becoming drug-free — and avoiding jail time.
Around 75 percent of criminal cases brought in Halifax County Circuit Court are drug-related, wrote Cunningham.
The number “has increased significantly over the years and projections indicate that criminal filings will continue to rise” — primarily for marijuana and cocaine abuse, although the trend also reflects the growing use of opiates, the judge noted.
A local application for a drug court has been submitted to the Supreme Court of Virginia and approval is expected, Cunningham wrote.
Drug courts are coordinated by local judges, law enforcement personnel, prosecutors and defense attorneys, treatment counselors and court services personnel such as probation and parole officers. Drug defendants are required to undergo frequent supervision and random testing to monitor for illegal drug use. Offenders who go through the program and stay drug-free usually have their charges dropped once they graduate.
The drug courts are not designed for individuals who have committed serious criminal acts.
The purpose of the court is to give drug users an opportunity to free themselves from addiction and to improve parenting and employment skills. The courts offer various rehabilitation services for those who are accepted in the program.
Halifax County is struggling with jail costs as a member of the Blue Ridge Regional Jail Authority. In October, the county received a supplemental bill from the jail authority for $467,751 to cover the county’s share of the operating the system. The county previously had budgeted $1,651,442 for the expense.
County Administrator Jim Halasz told supervisors in February that he expects to see the county’s share of jail expenses rise again, somewhere between $500,000 to $600,000, in the upcoming budget year.
According to officials, the state saves about $20,000 for every participant enrolled in the drug court — whether they succeed in staying drug-free or not. It generally costs around $30,000 to $35,000 to house a jail inmate.
At tonight’s meeting of the Halifax County Board of Supervisors, members will hear from Freda Holliday of the Halifax/Pittsylvania Court Services, who will give a briefing on plans for the new drug court. In addition to Cunningham and Holliday, members of the planning team include Halifax County Commonwealth’s Attorney Tracy Quackenbush Martin and Sheriff Fred Clark, public defender Sandra Sassen, Don Burge of the Southside Community Services Board, Lt. Dennis Barker of the South Boston Police Department and Janice Harris of the state Probation & Parole Board.
Halifax County’s application for the court, which was submitted on March 20, is pending review by the Supreme Court Advisory Committee on April 30. Planning team members will complete mandatory training in early May.
Jurisdictions that complete a substantial amount of planning and are ready to implement the program can apply for federal funding of up to $350,000 for a 36-month period. The grant, which is non-renewable, requires a 25 percent match from the county — with a portion required in cash. The remainder can be in the form of in-kind funding.
Also, each offender placed in the drug court will be required to pay a fee to participate, estimated at somewhere between $10 and $20 per week. Proceeds from the fees will go back into the court’s operations.
Burge advised supervisors at a recent budget hearing that it would take $165,000 initially to set up the special court.
Halasz said the plan calls for having a drug court operational in Halifax County by September or October.
Virginia has been relatively slow to adopt the drug court concept, with 23 local courts — including Chesapeake, Roanoke, Newport News and Bristol and the counties of Pulaski, Franklin and Tazewell — operating drug courts out of 150 jurisdictions statewide.
According to the Virginia Drug Court Association, 75 percent of national drug court graduates remained arrest-free at least two years after leaving the program. Established in 2000, the VDCA promotes the establishment, operation and training required for drug courts.
Be interesting to see how many of these drug offenses cluttering up the courts are teens arrested for simple possession of marijuana.
Guess legalizing and taxing it never crossed anyone's mind as a way to unclutter the courts.
But, as a county deputy pointed out to me some years ago, too many people in LE/courts and jail world are making a living off piddly simple possession charges for the stuff to ever be legalized.