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Drug court returns to county

by: Photo By Holly M. Gill - Judge Gary Thompson


   The drug court program is back. An effective solution for drug offenders who are committed to quitting is once again available in Jefferson County.
   "Our program deals with people who are close to the first time in the system," said Judge Gary Thompson, who presides over both the Jefferson and Crook County drug courts.
   In 1997, the program was initiated in Crook County with federal funding for a two-year cycle. It was renewed for another two years in 1999, and expanded into Jefferson County. Funding was discontinued in 2002, but Crook County opted to continue to fund the program, while Jefferson County did not.
   Since then, although the Oregon Legislature has decreased funding for drug and alcohol programs, in the last session, it made $2.5 million available for the 2005-2007 biennium for drug courts.
   The 22nd Judicial District, which includes Jefferson and Crook counties, received $251,427 for its drug court program on July 1. With that money, the district hired drug court coordinator Tom McKee; a treatment person at BestCare Treatment Services in Madras and another at Lutheran Community Services in Prineville; and allocated money for urinalyses -- laboratory analyses of urine for the presence of drugs or alcohol.
   Now, Thompson and McKee want to get the word out about the drug court program, which combines intensive treatment and rehabilitation with quicker court processing, and often, less jail time, to turn around the lives of participants.
   Typically, Thompson said, when a person is arrested for possession of a controlled substance -- in most cases methamphetamine -- the person is conditionally released. At a pretrial conference -- three weeks to three months later -- the defendant's attorney files motions to suppress evidence.
   If there is a trial, it might take another year and a half for an individual to be found guilty and sentenced. The usual sentence is 30 days in jail, 18 months of probation, some treatment, with a urinalysis possibly once a month.
   "The reality is, in a typical situation, most of them do not complete probation successfully, they continue to commit crimes and they continue to use," said Thompson. "They're not in recovery."
   Those entering the drug court program will likely be in court that day or the next day. If they are eligible for drug court, an attorney is appointed and they are given a drug court application.
   "In most cases, they're embarassed by the arrest and they're ripe for treatment," Thompson said.
   In order to take part in drug court, they must waive the necessity of a grand jury indictment, motions to suppress, jury trial, and the right of confidentiality -- since the case will be discussed twice monthly when they meet for drug court.
   "There is real strict confidentiality in alcohol and drug treatment," explained McKee, drug court coordinator for Jefferson and Crook counties, "but when they come into drug court, they sign agreements to allow team players to communicate freely about the case and their progress or lack of progress."
   The team includes the judge, court coordinator, counselors, and treatment program officials.
   "The idea is, you draw a circle that's close enough where you know if someone's using or not," said Thompson, noting that within the circle, they notice subtle changes. "Most of them are cross-addicted to methamphetamine, marijuana, alcohol, caffeine and nicotine."
   "The judge has great influence on them," said McKee. "When they're doing good and he compliments them, it really serves to motivate them to continue. When they screw up and he calls them on it, they respect him and 90 percent of the time, they resolve to do better."
   Participants must document attendance at 12-step treatment programs (at least twice a week), group sessions and individual counseling, and also undergo random drug testing two to five times per week.
   "If they do everything perfect, at a dead minimum, they get a handshake from me," said Thompson.
   If, on the other hand, they have unexcused absences from treatment sessions, Narcotics Anonymous or Alcoholics Anonymous, positive drug tests, or fail to show up for appointments, they receive court sanctions. The first sanction, for three or more violations, requires the violator to spend eight hours observing the judge in his courtroom.
   Further violations can result in community service, jail time, treatment assignments, or termination from the program.
   "When people do well, we clap hands. We break down the decorum of the court," said Thompson. "When they're through, they consider us as friends and acquaintances, as an integral part of their recovery."
   In a Multnomah County, a study found that in the two-year period following graduation or termination from the drug court program, offenders had 58 percent fewer arrests for property crimes, 75 percent fewer for felony person crimes, and 80 percent fewer for probation or parole violations.
   "People who have been in drug court have a far lower recidivism rate," he said. "If they do relapse, they're more likely -- on their own -- to go back into treatment."
   Thompson continued, "There's a relationship that's developed that's different from the typical criminal justice relationship. That's part of the reason it works."
   In one case, a man was kicked out of the program, but ended up getting his life back on track. "Because of the relationship the judge built with him, he saw the judge as an ally, not an adversary, and continued to call him and check in with him," said McKee. The man was recently appointed as an assistant manager at a large tire store elsewhere in Oregon.
   "Judges who have participated would probably say it's one of the highlights of what they do," said Thompson. "I wouldn't be doing it if I wasn't committed to it."
   Thompson, who served as district attorney in Crook County for over 17 years before he was appointed to the bench in 1990, estimates that over 80 percent of the cases he sees -- from criminal cases to divorces -- are related to problems with drugs and alcohol.
   The effects of methamphetamine are particularly insidious, he said, noting that it is a blood restrictor that can cause poor dental health, circulation problems and mental deficiencies.
   When people get addicted to meth, he said, "It's almost impossible for them to hold a job and almost impossible for them to parent."
   Thompson encourages people who become aware of a family member or friend who is using meth to get the person into treatment. "All they have to do is turn them in to the local police agency," he said. "If you really love them, you'll catch them holding and get them into drug court."
   Crook County currently has eight program participants, while Jefferson County has one. "The goal is to have 15 in each county," said McKee.
   When an individual successfully completes the drug court program, a graduation ceremony is held, the original charge is dismissed, and the offender can petition the court to set aside the record of arrest.
   In most cases, graduates are able to become productive members of society once again, as McKee has done.
   "I got clean in 1985," said McKee, who has over 14 years of experience in the addiction treatment field. "I just celebrated 21 years."