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More Counties May Get Drug Treatment Courts

January 27, 2012

Sherese A. Gore
Capital News Service

RICHMOND – Drug offenders in Buchanan County may soon have an alternative to a jail sentence under a measure proposed by Sen. Charles Carrico, R-Galax.

Senate Bill 317, which unanimously passed the Senate on Friday, would create drug treatment courts in Buchanan, Russell, Montgomery and Dickensen counties in Southwest Virginia and Goochland County in Central Virginia. Moreover, the legislation would establish a drug treatment court in Wise County that also would serve Scott and Lee counties.

Currently, Virginia has 30 special courts that handle charges involving drugs or driving under the influence by adults or juveniles. These courts give non-violent offenders the opportunity to have their charges dismissed upon completion of a stringent program of substance abuse treatment.

“The social policy of ‘lock them up and throw away the key’ is not working,” said Mike Mead, substance abuse coalition coordinator for Occupational Enterprises Inc., a nonprofit organization trying to address drug problems in Southwest Virginia.

Like many counties in that region, Buchanan is experiencing a surge in the illegal sale and usage of prescription drugs such as the pain medication Oxycontin.

“We got a unique situation here,” said Buchanan County Sheriff Ray Foster. “A lot of the drug people that I bust are in their 60s, their 70s. They take their medication and sell it.”

The illicit sales create an atmosphere conducive for other crimes such as larceny.

“You got these big mining cables that’s got a lot of copper in it. Get you a hundred foot of it, make you five, six hundred dollars,” Foster said. “That’s pills in the bank.”

Carrico is a retired state trooper who sponsored a bill this session to allow social services agencies to screen welfare recipients for drug use. He admitted to being an unlikely advocate for the drug court system.

“I didn’t feel like we should be coddling drug users,” Carrico said. “But after seeing the process that this individual has to go through in order to successfully complete the program, it’s a far cry from coddling them.”

According to a recent report by state officials, only 46 percent of Virginians who began drug court treatment programs graduated. (The graduation rate for DUI treatment courts was 74 percent.) However, those graduates had much a much lower chance of returning to drugs or crime.

The report said the recidivism rate for drug treatment court graduates was 20 percent, as opposed to 49 percent for those who didn’t complete the program.

“It’s a tough process … And there are some that say, ‘I’d rather be in jail,’ ” Carrico said.
Advocates for drug courts say the program can help offenders become productive citizens at minimal expense to the state.

Funding for the new courts would come from state and federal grants.

Greg Hopkins, president of the Virginia Drug Court Association, pointed out additional cost benefits.

“In 2001, adult drug court programs saved an average of $5,680 per participant with a net benefit of $2 per every dollar spent,” Hopkins said. “That’s good because you’re looking at how much money the localities are saving better than just locking somebody up.”

After clearing the Senate, Carrico’s bill now goes to the House.

Delegate Terry Kilgore, R-Gate City, submitted a companion House bill – HB 136. It hit a snag earlier in the legislation session: The bill was tabled by a subcommittee of the House Courts of Justice Committee.

On the Web

To monitor or comment on Senate Bill 317, visit the Richmond Sunlight website:
www.richmondsunlight.com/bill/2012/sb317/.