With meth-making on the rise, what to do with drug treatment court?

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Jonah Beleckis
Sunday, March 19, 2017

ELKHORN—The Walworth County District Attorney is cautious about letting methamphetamine manufacturers into Drug Treatment Court because making meth poses a greater danger to the community, he said.

“Meth poses a greater risk to the community than heroin does in the sense that, not only is it dangerous when someone uses the illegal substance, but meth--the process of creating it--puts the general public at risk as well,” District Attorney Zeke Wiedenfeld said. “I think we have to (look at meth differently than heroin).”

State Attorney General Brad Schimel told legislators last month that although much of his attention has been on fighting heroin and opioid addiction, the state must fight on a second front: methamphetamine.

One method Walworth County legal officials have used to handle heroin-addicted criminal offenders is Drug Treatment Court, "where participants actively engage in treatment, are highly monitored through drug testing and are held accountable through frequent court appearances," said Treatment Court Coordinator Katie Behl. 

But as meth—a cheap and easy-to-make stimulant that can explode during its making—is becoming more prevalent in Walworth County, Wiefenfeld said his office has to consider the extra damage meth poses to the community before allowing manufacturers to enter drug court.

Wiedenfeld said prosecutors have seen people with meth charges get arrested again on other meth charges while their cases are pending. Two such cases resulted in guilty pleas in the last 10 days.

Patrick Gerber, 38, pleaded guilty March 15 to manufacturing meth after he was released on bond for possessing materials to make meth a few months earlier. Bryan Tidwell, 32, pleaded guilty March 9 to manufacturing meth and then later helping deliver meth while he was released on bond.

Wiedenfeld said “everyone generally agrees that treatment is a good thing,” and treatment courts are effective in providing treatment to the community by creating strong incentives for people to comply with requirements.

Behl said drug court is at capacity for the first time since its inception in 2014. The program has 15 participants with space for 25.

Although she said she has recently been getting new referrals to the program, she does not think the program has had a new enrollee since late November.

Tidwell was denied access to drug court and veterans court, defense attorney Francis Raff said.

While Wiedenfeld said they are still figuring out how best to handle meth-making cases, Behl said statistics from the National Association of Drug Court Professionals show drug courts help meth addicts.

-- When compared to eight other programs, drug courts quadrupled the length of abstinence from meth.

-- Drug courts reduced meth use by more than 50 percent compared to outpatient treatment alone.

“So as the, even the state, but as the country has shifted to more meth, too, drug courts have had to shift as well,” Behl said. “And so we're still seeing the same positive outcomes as drug courts have had over all drugs too.”

Before prosecutors consider recommending a defendant for treatment court, Wiedenfeld said they consider the risk the person poses. Their evaluation considers the nature of the drug and the person's background.

“The goal is, if we're going to try and treat somebody in the community, we want to make sure that they are people who are less likely to harm the community,” Wiedenfeld said.

In his Feb. 9 testimony, Schimel emphasized the need to combat the rising meth epidemic on all sides.

“As we have learned with the opiate problem, it is not enough to go after only the supply side of a drug crisis,” Schimel said. “I have said many times, we will not arrest our way out of a drug epidemic. We must also address the demand side.”

Still, Schimel said, one-pot meth labs “often result in the condemnation and destruction of the building in which the drugs were produced and/or used.”

Meth's rise poses challenges to law enforcement and other public officials that other drugs do not. And because this is a relatively new problem for Walworth County, everyone is still working to find the best ways to deal with it.

“It's being discussed right now because this is a newer problem,” Wiedenfeld said. “Everyone is still working and trying to figure out what to do.”

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