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.
Posted: Saturday, December 14, 2013 12:00 am | Updated: 11:51 pm, Sat Dec 14, 2013. BY FRANK GREEN Richmond Times-Dispatch
Sixteen years ago Donald W. Lemons was a relatively new Richmond Circuit Court judge when he pushed for a new kind of court and served as its first judge.
The Richmond Adult Drug Treatment Court celebrated its 15th official year Friday with a graduation ceremony attended by Lemons, now a Virginia Supreme Court justice, who told some success stories from the court’s early days.
Lemons, however, also knows that addiction can strike anywhere and not every drug abuser can be saved. “Two weeks ago, I learned that on the day after Thanksgiving my cousin died from an overdose of heroin,” he said.
Addressing the crowd of roughly 200 court staff, graduates and dignitaries, Lemons said, “She was the daughter of my first cousin. I was 14 when she was born and I remember what a beautiful young girl she was. She died at age 50 in a distant city.”
He said she had been estranged from her family, including her two adult daughters. “Her eldest daughter, upon learning the news said, ‘I always knew that someday I would get this call,’ ” Lemons said.
“You know addiction is no respecter of persons. Addiction affects all races, men and women, educated and unschooled, the rich and the poor and even surfaces in a judge’s family,” Lemons said.
In 1997 Lemons’ court was one of three pilot programs in Virginia. Today there are 36 drug courts in Virginia — 22 adult courts, eight juvenile courts, two regional courts and four family courts — and more than 2,700 such courts across the country.
“Do we have setbacks and disappointments in the drug court program? You bet we do,” Lemons said. “But there is plenty of evidence that it makes a difference in the lives of many participants and is a cost-effective alternative to traditional incarceration.”
The aim of the program is to get addicts off drugs and out of the criminal justice system. Not all who start it finish. But more than 300 people, including Friday’s 14 graduates, have made it through to graduation.
A 2008 study by the Joint Legislative Audit Review Commission showed that the re-arrest rate for drug court completers in Richmond and Chesterfield County was 14 percent compared with 38 percent for similar non-drug court offenders.
A study last year of 12 of Virginia’s drug courts by the National Center for State Courts concluded that the drug courts save $19,234 per person as compared with “business as usual” handling for the same group of offenders.
The Richmond program provides substance-abuse treatment, probation supervision, mental-health counseling and other services to addicted felons with non-violent records.
There are usually about 60 participants in the Richmond program, almost all of them probation violators. The judge wields a carrot — freedom — and a stick — a suspended sentence hanging over the heads of the participants.
The court was officially founded in 1998 and had its first formal graduation in 1999, presided over by Lemons — then a judge on the Virginia Court of Appeals — and Richmond Circuit Judge Margaret Spencer, who took over for Lemons.
Lemons said getting the drug court started was not easy. There was no money, he said. “Most of all, we needed to have a new attitude toward the problem of addiction.”
There was resistance in the General Assembly and from some judges who did not believe it was the sort of work courts ought to be doing. Lemons — who joined the Supreme Court a few years later — was even warned it could be “a career-ender move.”
“You can imagine how thankful I am for Judge Spencer, who took responsibility for the drug court after I left and has been dedicated to it ever since,” Lemons said.
In the beginning, he said needed help came from a wide variety of sources including counselors, probation officers, teachers and public health professionals.
The court also got support from then-Richmond Commonwealth’s Attorney David Hicks and his successor,
Public safety, said Lemons, is a primary consideration of the program and no one can participate without the agreement of the commonwealth’s attorney.
Lemons said that long after he left drug court he still ran into participants. He recalled one encounter at Virginia Center Commons when a familiar voice hollered, “Yo, Judge Lemons.”
“I knew who that was before I even looked up,” Lemons said. The young man approached him. “I said, ‘Anthony, how are you?’ ”
Lemons said the young man smiled and told him: “Look, thank you for putting me in jail for a few months. . . . Before you put me into drug court, I needed to be off the streets. I needed to be clean. I needed to be away from the people I was hanging with.”
He said he had paid all his fines and court costs, his child support was current and for the first time in his adult life he had an address and a driver’s license.
Each of Friday’s 14 graduates was introduced, their families recognized and a bit of their substance abuse history recounted before they were given certificates of completion and could make remarks of their own.
The last of them, Antonio Wilkins, a former crack addict, thanked the police for arresting him and thanked his family, the drug court staff, the judges and his fellow graduates and others for their help.
“I thought I was going to die with a crack pipe in my mouth,” said Wilkins, his voice breaking. “I just want to thank you all for just putting up with me. Thank you all for loving me,” he said. “Thank you all for giving my life back.”