Drug battle: The judicial side

ST. CLAIRSVILLE – After a drug-related arrest, the county’s courts take on the task of processing and rehabilitating offenders.

Prosecutor Chris Berhalter said the courts have held offenders accountable and sent a clear message through measures such as forfeiture of homes and proceeds from drug trafficking, and lengthy prison sentences.

Meanwhile, low-level offenders whose crimes have stemmed from addiction may have the option of participating in the drug court if they are approved as suitable. If the defendant agrees, they will enter a guilty plea to the charges they face. If they fail to complete the program, they are sentenced for their violations.

“The only ones we approve for drug court are low-level drug offenses with no prior criminal history and which the defendant has been evaluated and has an addiction that is the cause of the underlying criminal offense,” Berhalter said. “Most of the time there’s a clear difference between drug traffickers and those with low-level drug offenses battling addiction.

Those drug traffickers that are causing the harm to our communities are never candidates for drug court, and we work hard to ensure that they get the most severe sanction that can be imposed.”

Rebecca L. Schuetz, clinical supervisor at Crossroads Counseling and prior drug court coordinator from 2000 through 2012 said the ratio of needs to resources remains a concern. She noted that funding cuts from the government ODATUS program two year ago have meant the reduction in staff from two full-time people. There are currently two staff members in drug court.

“We only have enough money to really fund one full-time person and it’s decreased the numbers we can have in drug court,” she said, noting that the program has had to add a lesser track program, with less monitoring, attention and staff availability. “We still have the participants, but we don’t have the full program like we should.”

In addition, group activity has been reduced from three times a week to once per week.

“Some people don’t get the full treatment they should be getting because we just can’t fund it, and obviously the costs are too expensive for participants to pay out of pocket.”

In prior years, the drug court has had five employees, three of whom were full time, with 60 participants.

“We still have the need,” she said, noting an estimated 25 people in the lesser track and 13 in the regular program, with a capacity for 13.

Meanwhile, those on waiting lists are receiving treatment at Crossroads.

Drug court includes treatments such as moral recognition therapy and counseling to help with issues such as problem solving, reasoning and goal setting. Cognitive behavioral therapy groups also achieve results.

“The whole premise of drug court is to help them change their thinking and their behavior,” Schuetz said, noting the violations related to drug use. “When we started, most of the participants in drug court were in here for possession and trafficking and now almost all of them are in here for property crimes.”

She added that offenses include theft from family or people known to them, breaking and entering and forgery of prescriptions.

“I would say most of the upswing is due to prescription drug abuse,” she said, adding that this marked a change from earlier years when marijuana and alcohol were the chief drugs of participants. Now they are seeing more opiates, synthetic marijuana and bath salts, which can be more difficult to catch in screenings.

This is another added cost, since drug tests for those particular substances are more expensive.

She added that they hope for additional grant funding in the future.

While a criminal charge is not necessary to receive treatment, the presence of a charge and the requirement of appearing regularly before a judge is an added motive to remain in treatment and see it through. The opportunity to have their offense expunged is another motivator, considering their hope for employment. Schuetz said the staff refers participants to the Connections office or tries to place them with employers.

“There’s still a lot of places that won’t hire anybody with a pending felony on their record,” she said.

The program includes five phases applied based on the individual’s needs. They include encouraging involvement in community activity and gaining employment. The program is one to three years. She did not have recidivism rates handy.

“Being that our numbers have reduced and that our program takes the worst potential clients, I would say our recidivism rate probably went up slightly,” she said, adding that dropout rates have decreased. She said participants younger than 25 have increased in the past few years.

Another complication occurs when participants need legitimate medication and the staff must ensure the substances are not abused.

Regarding juvenile offenses, Juvenile Court Judge Mark Costine noted that drug court programs have been divided into the regular program and two lesser tracks to address the needs of less at-risk juveniles with minimal treatment needs.

Meanwhile, the state is seeing more cases of rampant abuse of alcohol, prescription drugs and synthetic substances. His court his also seeing more property crimes related to drug use. Juvenile court also reaches out to middle school children with mock court proceedings and speaking presentations by juveniles who have been through the system and will share their experiences.

He added that most treatment costs are paid by Medicaid. After the juvenile drug court’s initial four years, they were no longer eligible for those sources and had to search out state and local sources. Costine said the court is a 501 c-3 charitable corporation that may accept donations from the public.

David Carter, coordinator of the juvenile drug court program, noted that the parents’ willingness or ability to participate and provide needs such as transportation is another challenge. The court partners with North Point Counseling, who have hired case management to provide transportation and other assistance to ease the burden on parents.

Another issue for working with juveniles is encouraging them to build better habits and form wholesome friendships.

“Peer pressure for this group is tremendous,” Costine said.

Juvenile drug court has three staff members.

In addition, they must work with family drug court. In those cases, Children’s Services must step in when parental drug use causes abuse or neglect in children. In such cases the goal is the return of children to their families after rehabilitation.

DeFrank can be reached at rdefrank@timesleaderonline.com