Kicking the Jail Time Habit!

Kicking the Jail Time Habit!
Posted by FoM on March 09, 1999 at 06:01:04 PT

  Drug Court to help more low-level offenders break addiction-arrest-incarceration cycle.Five weeks ago, Michael would have been just one more person charged with a drug crime, waiting to see if he could cut a deal in exchange for a guilty plea.
Charged with selling a small amount of methamphetamine to an undercover cop, he braced himself for a long wait just to find out how much jail time he'd be getting.Instead, the 48-year-old former musician is getting a break.Before Feb. 2, he automatically would have been prosecuted.Instead of a jail cell, Michael is facing a yearlong diet of treatment, counseling and random urinalysis. First, however, he has to be deemed a low-level drug dealer.Supportive law enforcement officials recently relaxed the rules that decide who qualifies for the successful program. As a result, Drug Court soon will be expanding, accepting up to 20 new offenders over the next six months.After three years of shutting out minor offenders like Michael, the court has widened its doors, helping them kick the habits that pushed them into crime.``This is my first offense. I'm not going to let myself mess up now,'' said Michael, who asked that his last name not be used for fear of losing his job.``I was selling because I ended up always finding someone who wanted me to get some meth for them.''He's part of a group of ``middlers'' -- people who support their habits by peddling small amounts of drugs.Not every person charged with selling drugs can qualify for Drug Court. Major dealers and people with a history of violence aren't allowed in.Spokane County Prosecutor Steve Tucker, elected in November, supports efforts to cut down on drug-related crime by getting more people into the program.Besides small-time dealers, Tucker has OK'd letting in certain gang members and people who have committed property crimes.``For the first time, the court's accepting people who are not charged with drug crimes,'' said Superior Court Judge James Murphy, who presides over the court.Check forgers and thieves, however, will have to establish a connection between their crime and substance abuse, Murphy said. Gang members will have to be specifically approved for the program by police.Murphy said he also persuaded Tucker to give some of the people who failed Drug Court another chance.``Again, that has to be done on a case by case basis,'' the judge said.Drug courts replace the prosecution and jail sentence approach with a system that plugs the offender into an intensive year of treatment, monitoring and counseling.The goal -- being pursued in Spokane and 600 similar courts nationwide -- is to stop the cycle of drug abuse, criminal activity, punishment and re-arrest.Spokane Drug Court's accomplishments have made it a model for counties around the country that are considering adding that option. Murphy is one of five judges who was asked to attend a training seminar in Washington, D.C., this month.At that conference, Murphy will present several clinics on how Spokane's court operates.In its three years, 43 men and women have completed the one-year Spokane Drug Court program. Of those, only five have reoffended.Drug offenders who don't go through such programs usually have a 50 percent recidivism rate, Deputy Prosecutor Mary Doran said.Another 40 participants entered the court program, then dropped out. They were sentenced on the original drug charge and placed on community supervision. ``We've had some of those who drop out. But even then they reoffend less than other drug offenders,'' said Doran, the prosecutor assigned to Drug Court.Spokane police have changed from being skeptical to supportive of the program, Doran said.``As they see the results and as word got out how hard the program is to complete, they've been more positive,'' Doran said.With a $490,000 budget, Drug Court handles about 60 participants at a time. The new criteria should add another 15 or 20 more this year without too much strain, Doran said.Federal grants have been the primary component of Spokane's Drug Court. At least half of the budget goes to pay for treatment -- since most offenders can't afford it on their own.Murphy and other advocates of the court hope the state Legislature will provide additional funding.Proposed legislation would provide Spokane with about $500,000 in the next biennium to carry the program forward, Murphy said. Tom Sowa can be reached at 459-5492 or by e-mail at toms
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