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Rock County's drug court is tough, but is it effective?

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Mike DuPre'
July 13, 2008
— Rock County’s drug court is no cakewalk or slap on the wrist.

Since its inception a little more than a year ago—May 3, 2007—more drug users have washed out of the program than graduated from it.


Figures provided by Kate Buker, an assistant Rock County district attorney, showed that 20 of 42 people with final court outcomes had graduated.


Two left the program on their own; one never showed up.


The two judges who have presided over drug court booted the remaining 19 back to the criminal courts where their cases originated—and where they have been sentenced.


“It’s very hard,” Buker said. “I wouldn’t care to be on that short of a leash, responsible to the treatment people every day and they’re (defendants) supposed to be working full-time jobs.”


Of the 20 graduates, online court records showed only one had been charged with a new crime—misdemeanor obstructing—since graduation.


Asked her opinion of the program’s success, Buker said: “It’s way too soon to tell. The earliest graduate has been out only six months. The best success would be people not using drugs again or committing crimes that affect others.


“If we just keep people out of jail for only six months, it would be dumb. We might as well do regular criminal prosecution.


“We’re going through a lot of trouble, and it’s expensive.”


The county figures it will pay ATTIC Correctional Services of Madison $300,000 a year to treat and counsel drug court clients.


The money to pay for treatment comes from an annual state grant, $156,814; county taxes, $91,183 annually; clients’ fees, $40,327, and payments from insurance companies and government medical assistance, $11,693.


The county is in the second year of a potential three-year state grant. County officials anticipate receiving the grant again next year.


Currently, 44 people are in drug court. They pleaded guilty to the crimes they were charged with—not necessarily drug crimes—and entered the program with the goal of getting their charges dismissed or reduced.


To do so, they not only must get and stay clean, but they also must try to find jobs, further their educations, change their thinking and manage their emotions.


“I believe it’s a very rigorous program,” said Judge James Daley, the lead judge for Rock County Circuit Court. “It should be a rigorous program. Without that, it will be what many people think it is—a slap on the wrist.


“To change their lives, it needs to be a punch in the jaw.”


Faced with a crowded jail and a proposed expansion pegged at $56 million, Rock County decided to try drug court as an alternative to jail.


Because of the grants funding it, the program is required to estimate how much jail time and money has been saved.


Prosecutors estimated that, without drug court, 17 of the 20 graduates probably would have received a maximum of 2,170 days in the county jail—as well as five years in state prison.


Three probably would have received straight probation.


At a cost of $64 a day to house an inmate, the jail has saved an estimated $138,880.


But Buker acknowledged that the estimates’ accuracy is questionable.


“It’s our wildest best guess,” she said.


If successful, though, the program will produce rewards that cannot be counted, Daley said.


“The benefits of the program will not truly be felt, if they’re felt at all, for five to 10 years down the road,” the judge said. “We’ll never know how many offenses were not committed. … We’re trying to break the cycle (of drug use and criminality) with these people one case at a time.”


But Daley does see short-term positive effects.


Most people in drug court would regularly run into other trouble—bar fights, disorderly conduct, shoplifting and so forth, Daley said. “So not seeing these names since May 2007 is a positive thing.”


Judge Richard Werner is the second judge to preside over drug court.


On the drug court bench since November, Werner continues to stress the three foundation pieces instituted and emphasized by his predecessor, Judge John Roethe:


-- Abstinence.


-- Honesty to self and others.


-- Responsibility for yourself and your drug-free life.


Relapse is anticipated and considered part of the rehabilitation process.


“If the program is going to be of value, you’re going to have to take a risk on people,” Werner said. “If we took only easy cases, the program wouldn’t be beneficial to those in the community.


“If we don’t have failures, the program is not going to work,” he continued. “If you don’t have failures, we’re not selecting the right people to get help because failure is an integral part of addiction. If there are no failures, it’s telling you you’re not pushing hard enough.”


At one session, Werner immediately ordered a non-cooperative defendant to spend 24 hours in jail.


“You’re not doing well,” Werner told the man, a business owner. “You have positive screens for cocaine and morphine. You gotta make a commitment here.


“This program is not for you to avoid the criminal process. It’s for you to address your addiction,” Werner admonished the man. “You have to face up to this. I gotta see a negative screen, or you’re going back to criminal court.”


Werner eventually terminated the man from drug court, and his original judge sentenced him to jail.


Werner has ordered jail—24 or 48 hours at a time—for at least a dozen drug court clients.


“I want them walked out in cuffs. It makes more of an impact. The idea is if they’re doing well, you have to give ’em positive strokes. …


“They had chances but didn’t use them,” Werner said. “If you have a relapse or miss a meeting but are honest about it, then you’ll get less of a sanction, community service.


“The people who lie about it get a jail sentence, 24 hours.”


And who people who continually lie to the court or are not making any progress usually are booted out.


When clients continue to use drugs without interruption—often combined with lying—they are terminated from drug court, Werner and Buker said.


“They’re not getting anywhere, and we don’t see anything else to help them,” Buker said.


Another criminal charge does not automatically result in termination, Werner said.


“Usually, it’s not a one-time deal,” the judge said. “It’s continued use of substances without any effort to stop and lying about it.”


If clients are honest about backsliding, they usually get the benefit of the doubt, he said.


But repeated failure to show up for weekly court sessions, random drug screens and required 12-step meetings usually results in termination.


“If you miss one or two, usually we can find a reason around that,” Werner said. “But if you’re lying, you’re not taking responsibility.”



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