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Drug court gets under way in county

By MELINDA WILLIAMS

melinda@southwesttimes.com

There’s now an alternative to incarceration for some substance-addicted defendants in Pulaski County, but they needn’t think the alternative is a walk in the park.

“It’s a very intense treatment program and they’ve got to put the effort in. It’s not a cake walk by any means,” Randy Matney says of Pulaski County’s new Drug Court, which got under way Thursday. Matney is chief probation and parole officer for District 28, which includes Pulaski, Floyd and Montgomery counties, Radford City and Christiansburg.

The mission of the four-phase program, which typically takes 12 to 24 months to complete, is “to provide substance abuse treatment with intensive judicial oversight and frequent supervisory contact from probation and the treatment provider.” It is an alternative to incarceration, and its goal is to break the cycle of addiction, crime and incarceration.

There’s a $900 Drug Court fee (divided among the four phases), in addition to treatment fees that average around $60 per month. However, Drug Court coordinator Lori Trail of New River Valley Community Services (NRVCS) emphasizes no one is turned away for inability to pay. Payment plans can be arranged for those who need financial assistance.

But the effort and costs don’t go unrewarded for those who choose to take part, Matney and Trail say. Graduation from Drug Court not only can result in dismissal or reduction of the graduate’s charge or charges, it also can give them a new, drug-free life.

The Virginia Drug Court Advisory Committee officially approved on April 3 establishment of an Adult Drug Treatment Court in Pulaski County, but the planning process already had been under way for about a year. Matney and Trail agree Circuit Court Judge Marcus Long Jr. was instrumental in getting the program started in Pulaski County.

When he was the Juvenile and Domestic Relations Court judge in Montgomery County, Long had a Family Drug Court, Trail said. When he became circuit court judge in Pulaski County, he wanted to start an Adult Drug Treatment Court here.

Long presides over Drug Court, which meets at 3 p.m. the first and third Thursday of each month. Participants are placed on probation and required to appear before the judge each time the court meets so the judge can gauge whether the participant is complying with program requirements.

To be selected for the program, Trail said, a defendant must be at least 18 years old, live in Pulaski County, volunteer to take part in the program and meet a variety of other requirements, including having a “long-term history of addiction.”

“We’re targeting substance-abusing offenders with pending (felony) drug-driven charges,” Trail said. “Particularly those in the high-risk, high-needs population.”

Defendants with violent, sex-related or weapons offenses do not qualify to participate, nor do defendants with convictions of such crimes within the past 10 years.

The commonwealth attorney’s office determines whether a defendant is appropriate for the program. Then a Drug Court team recommends which participants to refer to the program.

The Drug Court team consists of the judge, the clerk of court, commonwealth’s attorney, a defense attorney, probation officer, law enforcement representative, treatment provider (NRVCS) and Trail.

The team meets an hour before Drug Court convenes to evaluate each participant’s progress. It then recommends to the court whether the participant should receive sanctions for non-compliance or incentives for doing well.

Trail said incentives might include a gift certificate, decrease in court appearances, a certificate acknowledging progress, advancement to the next phase or recognition by the judge. Sanctions might include a reprimand from the judge, increased drug testing or court appearances, phase demotion, a writing assignment, additional community service hours, referral to detox or even a period of incarceration, if necessary.

Violation of program requirements or rules doesn’t automatically result in termination from the program. However, Trail emphasized no violations go unpunished.

Since retention in the program is critical to successful recovery, termination from the program is only considered for serious violations that would endanger the program or public safety.

It’s up to Judge Long to “look at the whole picture” to determine whether a non-compliant participant had a brief relapse and is committed to completing the program. He will then decide whether to impose sanctions or terminate the defendant’s participation in the program. Those who fail to complete the program still are required to pay their treatment fees and they will face sentencing for their crime or crimes.

The Drug Court program also is designed to allow participants to give back to the community by performing 100 hours of community service. Also, Trail said, Phase IV requires all participants to work together to decide on and complete a community service project.

Since there was no money to start the Drug Court, Trail said the whole program is “a partnership at this time.” Given Pulaski County’s statistics when it comes to drug use (see inset), officials believe the benefits are such that Judge Long, Matney, NRVCS acting director Rosemary Sullivan and Assistant Director of Crisis and Family Services James Prichett are dedicating staff to the program without any financial compensation to the agencies.

The first Drug Court in Virginia was formed in Roanoke in 1995. Called the 23rd Judicial Circuit Drug Court, it is the state’s largest drug court, expecting 18 graduates this Friday.

According to a 2012 Cost-Benefit Analysis of Drug Courts prepared by National Center for State Courts, “participants in a drug treatment program saved nearly $20,000 compared to a matched comparison group in a business-as-usual model.”

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