Drug Court's tenth anniversary a muted celebration

The Kitsap County Drug Court was established 10 years ago, when the idea that treatment could be more effective than punishment was not so widely accepted.

Ironically, in an era when the philosophy is more widely accepted, the program is threatened by funding cuts.

The anniversary will be commemorated on April 24, when Washington Attorney General Rob McKenna will speak at the quarterly Drug Court Graduation Ceremony, to take place at 9 a.m. in the Commissioners’ Chambers in Port Orchard.

“Drug Court has been proven to reduce recidivism for drug-using felons,” McKenna said. “There are very few programs in the criminal justice system that have this kind of effectiveness or level of success. It’s cost-effective. Drug Court graduates and attendees are less likely to reoffend, which saves money.”

Like all social services, however, Drug Court is facing severe budget cuts. McKenna, along with other Drug Court advocates, is quick to connect the dots between money spent now that is saved later.

“We’re making short-term cuts for expediency,” he said. “Cutting Drug Court money is short-sighted. Getting a violent offender off the street has an immediate public safety benefit, but funding Drug Court offers a longer-term savings. So these cuts are short-sighted.”

McKenna said almost every county in Washington operates a Drug Court, and the rehabilitation-versus-punishment model has expanded into other areas. Mental Health Court is one example.

The Kitsap Drug Court has weathered the funding storm for years, with available money secured at the last minute. Last year the funding for a compliance officer was cut, but later restored by contributions from local cities.

Support for the local court is even more uncertain this year.

One of three budgets — from the Senate, the governor or the House of Representatives — is up for consideration. According to Kitsap County Substance Abuse Treatment Coordinator Betsy Bosch, each version would cause certain problems.

But she won’t know how to react until a budget is selected.

It takes approximately $360,000 a year to run the local Drug Court. While there is a trend for volunteers to take up the slack for endangered programs, the specialized work performed by a drug treatment coordinator isn’t something that can be performed by the average county well-wisher.

“Drug Court has saved the county and the state millions of dollars,’ said Superior Court Judge Jay Roof, who spends the equivalent of one day per week presiding over Drug Court. “It has saved the lives and the families of the 274 graduates that we have returned to the community.”

Drug Court deals with around 120 offenders at any given time, each of whom commit to an 18-month program.

During this period, they appear in front of Roof once a week and often have a daily treatment responsibility.

Drug Court works because there are multiple responsibilities participants must meet, increasing the likelihood they will succeed in their efforts to kick the habit.

Roof said the upcoming graduation will reduce the number of participants to 95, which is well below capacity.

However, no new clients will enter the program until funding is more certain.

The first step toward understanding who is in Drug Court is to define those who don’’t qualify. People with a history of violent offenses or sexual crimes and those who have used a firearm in their most recent charge need not apply.

Additionally, those looking for the easy way out of their situation should probably pursue another strategy.

Most significantly, only someone who is actually an addict can participate. This is not intended for a first-time offender arrested on a small possession charge or a drug-dabbler who could quit at any time.

The eligible offenses for Drug Court include possession, drug-motivated forgery or theft and drug-related felony probation violation.

If someone qualifies for Drug Court, their case is flagged by the prosecuting attorney and they are taken out of the judicial system.

If they flunk out of Drug Court after making a commitment, they are likely to receive a maximum sentence for their crime.

Roof keeps notebooks about each Drug Court graduate, tracking his or her successes and setbacks. He maintains personal contact with many of the graduates, who often return to court in order to update their progress.

Roof said he is now “getting old” and doesn’t recall all the names, but he does remember every face.

Through the years, Roof has learned that 18 months is needed to reach success, even if it appears that some people are “cured” after a shorter time. And he has also found some hidden successes, people who have flunked out of the program but used its messages to kick the habit on their own.

Drug Court has a lot of support, as it is a key part of treatment,

“I’m a law and order guy,” said McKenna. “But Drug Court works, and we need to find a way to make sure it continues.”

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