Palm Beach County opens its drug court

first_imgPalm Beach County opens its drug court April 15, 2001 Jan Pudlow Associate Editor Regular News Palm Beach County opens its drug court Associate Editor “You’ve tried to quit on your own, haven’t you?” Palm Beach County Judge Nelson Bailey asks in a voice that is both firm and kind. “We recognize your addiction does not mean you’re a bad person trying to get good. It means you’re a sick person trying to get better.” Welcome to Palm Beach County Drug Court, Florida’s newest addition to more than 660 drug courts across the country. It’s been a long time coming. Palm Beach County had wanted its own drug court for nearly a decade, after touring the nation’s original Dade County Drug Court in 1991 and coming home excited about the concept. Finally, Palm Beach persevered and got the funding, planning, and philosophical kinks worked out to offer the voluntary option to drug defendants on November 6, 2000. Now, the program is waiting to see if it will get a $500,000 federal grant that would allow the program to expand beyond its current capacity of 125 participants. “I hope it meets the need that we intend it to — that we are basically able to decrease substance abuse dependency and, therefore, crime,” said Diana Cunningham, director of the Palm Beach County Criminal Justice Commission, the policy planning group that helped get the new drug court up and running. What began in 1989 as an experiment by the Dade County Circuit Court to stop the revolving door of drug defendants who couldn’t stay clean and went in and out of jail, has become a national movement. Now, there are drug courts underway in 48 states, as well as the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, Guam, a number of Native American Tribal Courts and one federal district court, according to the Drug Courts Program Office, of the U.S. Department of Justice. Nearly 100,000 drug dependent offenders have entered drug court programs since their inception, and more than 70 percent are either still enrolled or have graduated — more than double the rate of traditional treatment program retention rates, according to the Drug Courts Program Office. Though drug courts may individually vary, what they have in common is using the power of a judge to oversee an intensive, community-based, treatment, rehabilitation, and supervision program for felony drug defendants — with the recognition that drug addicts will have relapses. “I think a healthy part of the program is the recognition that relapse. . . is part of the program,” said 15th Judicial Circuit Chief Judge Walter Colbath. “It’s all about helping them become responsible for their own behavior and reward them for positive progress. It’s all about responsibility.” In Palm Beach County, first-time, non-violent felony substance abuse offenders must admit they have a drug problem and volunteer for drug court. If the defendant successfully completes the yearlong program, the State Attorney’s Office drops the charges against them. The team effort between the State Attorney, Public Defender, Court Administration, Department of Corrections probation officers, Sheriff’s Office, and health care drug abuse service providers not only works to help defendants get off drugs, but to complete their educations and find jobs. “It is fulfilling the need and then some,” said Judge Bailey. “As a judge, it’s been a really refreshing experience. Before drug court, we could give them probation and a jail sentence with in-house treatment. In those schemes, if they fell off the wagon or violated any terms, their probation was violated. And they were looking at jail time. Period. Under the drug court scheme, it recognizes that people with addictions have relapses.” When random urine tests show a defendant has tested positive for cocaine or marijuana, there is a penalty — such as community service work or a weekend in jail — but they remain in the program. Rewards for not missing treatment sessions may come in the form of tickets to sporting events or donations of dinners at area restaurants. The key is close supervision, and the team sits down every week to do a staffing, where recommendations for rewards and sanctions are discussed. “We know the names of their wives and girlfriends,” said Assistant State Attorney Marty Epstein. “We’ve had individuals walk up to us and say, `I could not have been this clean for five months without drug court.’ Others say, `I’m coming to you and asking you to put me into custody.’ When someone says, `I don’t want to be removed from drug court, I’m quite willing to do the sanction,’ it tells you quite a bit about the program. It makes them take notice of themselves.” While the program can now handle about 125 participants, Epstein says the actual need could easily reach 1,000 — as it is in neighboring Broward County’s Drug Court. But, first, Palm Beach’s funding must be enhanced, and their hopes are now set on that $500,000 federal implementation grant. As head of the Palm Beach County Criminal Justice Commission, Cunningham has been there every step of the way and traced the many hurdles that had to be overcome. “In 1991, we learned about Miami’s Drug Court and a group toured it. Everyone was excited. But our chief judge at the time felt we needed a specialty court and put in approval for another judge, but got turned down,” Cunningham recalled. When Barry Krischer became state attorney, he was a believer in treatment for drug offenders and started a drug diversion program without a judge, called the Prosecutor’s Alternative Drug Division, she said. And while that PAD program was better than nothing, Cunningham said, it did not have the success rate of drug courts that use the authority of a judge to keep participants on track. Meanwhile, about two and half years ago, the Bureau of Justice sent out information explaining a change in definition of a drug court. No longer was it required to be a separate division of the courts, just a separate docket. Cunningham helped sell the idea to the judges, who voted unanimously to try for a federal planning grant. Successfully receiving that $30,000 planning grant, combined with a $10,000 local match, the Drug Court Planning Committee, chaired by Judge Bailey, was established in July 1999. For 18 months, more than 40 people, including a core drug team of six members, planned for the day the program would be up and running to accept its first volunteer defendants. Local matching money for state or federal grants, Cunningham said, is boosted by the $150,000 a year collected from the Drug Abuse Trust Fund, where defendants in every plea agreement on any crime are assessed $50 for felonies and $25 for misdemeanors. The Palm Beach County Drug Court does have a sliding fee scale for participants, ranging from $357 to $3,579 for the year-long treatment program. As 15th Judicial Circuit Court Administrator Sue Ferrante said, “It’s part of their treatment to take responsibility,” but she added it’s too new of a program to see how much money will actually be collected from participants. A county-funded secretary was redirected to the drug court team, Ferrante said. And two state positions — coordinator and administrative assistant — are in the budget. “One good thing is that the governor and the Florida Supreme Court support drug courts,” said Chief Judge Colbath. “That may be the only thing they see eye to eye on.” Colbath added: “We delayed opening a drug court, primarily, until appropriate treatment facilities were in place or those that existed signed on to the concept, so you didn’t put somebody into the program and then send them out to the environment from which they came and say, `We’ll contact you when a bed opens.’ They need to go from the courtroom right to the treatment facility. That is what is happening now.. . . We really keep a very close watch on them.” And as Judge Bailey promises his Palm Beach County Drug Court participants: “We’ll take time and not give up on you, if you will stick with the program.. . . You really do have to want it, but you can do it.. . . Remember, you don’t have to live the way you are living now.”last_img

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