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Allen drug court an exception

It works, says judge, contrary to most results in a national report.

Monday, October 19, 2009 - 10:55 am

The National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers released a 78-page report last month, two years in the making, on problem-solving courts, or drug courts. The report listed their suggestions for reform.

The report was as comprehensive as it was critical, denouncing the specialized courts and accusing most of the 2,100 around the country of having evolved from a path to addiction treatment to an obstacle blocking a drug user's way.

Drug courts, on the whole, are geared to convictions and jail time rather than rehabilitation and the criminal intervention methods they were intended to produce, the study suggests. It claims the courts have had little to no effect on halting the rise of drug abuse and the ever-growing costs taxpayers face when abusers are imprisoned.

That is the report's assessment of most drug courts.

Fran Gull, Allen Superior Court's drug court judge, says her court falls in the minority.

“Our goal is to treat the addict, and to steer the addict toward rehabilitation with the belief being, once we treat the addiction, that takes care of the criminal behavior,” said Gull. “The whole goal is to prevent future crime by treating the addiction.”

Drug courts were created as a response to the drug-related criminal cases that filled courts and prisons with addicts, not criminals. The first was started in Miami in 1989. The report, titled “America's Problem-Solving Courts: The Criminal Costs of Treatment and the Case for Reform,” insists that methodology got lost somewhere along the way.

“Drug courts were intended as a reform,” said Cynthia Orr, president of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers. “Unfortunately, many of these courts are conviction mills, which treat substance abusers as criminals and give them access to criminal treatment only if they admit guilt and require a criminal record.”

That condition applies to Gull's court, too, which requires all potential entrants to plead guilty, with the counsel of an attorney. The plea is required to establish what Gull called “factual basis.” An individual must admit he or she has a problem, and must identify the substance to which he or she is addicted.

But even all that doesn't guarantee entry.

A thorough assessment is conducted by drug court staff, which is composed of four case managers, Gull, two field officers, the director of criminal division services, the assistant director of criminal division services, two treatment providers, the defense attorney and the prosecuting attorney. This process is designed to weed out unqualified criminals, because only addicts are invited in.

The referral into Gull's drug court is done by the prosecuting attorney, typically within two weeks of the person's arrest, when treatment can be most effective for the addict.

After all that, acceptance into drug court is the easy part.

The 18-to-24-month program, made up of three phases, is a grueling test of will, commitment and drive to become healthy. It's also far more than simply a drug program, Gull says.

“It's a lot of hard work, and I tell them, ‘We're going to support you through it, but I can't do it. You have to do it. We're here to support you, to guide you, to give you encouragement, to smack you when you need to get smacked and praise you when you deserve it.'”

Rarely are two cases alike. Because crimes ranging from prostitution to theft to forgery to possession are accepted, the treatments, programs and sanctions that are ordered vary.

After a person is accepted, the courts refer him or her for treatment to area health and rehabilitation providers, such as Park Center, the Bowen Center, Family & Children's Services Inc. or Peace Counseling Inc., among others.

Every person who is a part of drug court is assigned a color, and every morning that person must call the court. If the person hears the assigned color on the message, he or she must drop everything and get to court immediately for testing.

Anyone who fails is sanctioned. Sanctions can range from community service, additional meetings, jail time or revocation from the drug court program.

But there are also rewards. Gull said participants can receive verbal praise in court, have a case pushed to the front of the drug court docket for trial or receive a gift certificate to an area store.

Drug court is a path of meetings, support groups, treatment centers, court and testing. As people move through the program, their supervision lessens. They're required to meet less and attend court less.

Gull said 411people have graduated from her drug court since its inception in 1997. “That's really good,” she says.

But it's more than just those 411, Gull said. It's the number of drug-free babies born to them, the number of GEDs attained, the number of better jobs the participants have gotten. That's the goal of drug court.

“You get into that cycle of drugs and alcohol, drugs and alcohol, and I can't tell you how many folks I get that come into drug court that don't know how to write a check, that don't know how to balance a checkbook, that don't know how to parent their children because they were never parented very well,” Gull said.

“Once we get them clean and sober, then we have to train them.”

“We are, and I believe this and I've been told this by state authorities, one of the best drug courts in the state.”