Bar News - June 22, 2007
New Drug Court Sessions Begin in Grafton County - Program Is an Alternative to Jail
By: Laura Kiernan
A new drug court program in Grafton County offers addicts an opportunity to participate in an intense, court supervised rehabilitation program for two years instead of going to jail.
“We can make a difference in a lot of lives,” said Superior Court Judge Jean K. Burling, who sentenced the first participant in the Grafton County drug court in May. The program is a start toward “stopping the revolving door for drug users who are repeatedly arrested because they are addicts,” Judge Burling said.
As part of a plea agreement with the Grafton County Attorney’s Office, participants in the program report to the judge each week to talk about their progress. Each participant also undergoes regular drug testing and meets with treatment counselors. Their case is reviewed each week by a drug court treatment team, including the judge, and there are quick sanctions, including jail time, if a participant violates the program rules.
The Grafton County drug court program extends the effort throughout New Hampshire to establish community-based programs in which judges and court staff, law enforcement, local government officials, corrections and treatment providers collaborate to help offenders whose substance abuse leads to repeated crimes. Strafford County began an adult drug court program in January 2006; juvenile drug courts are also now in operation in six District Court locations throughout the state and two more are scheduled to begin operations in the upcoming months.
“We take high risk people, with high needs,” said attorney Bob Gasser, a former prosecutor who is the coordinator for the Grafton County “Drug Court Sentencing Program.” A facilitator for the National Drug Court Institute, Gasser has extensive experience in a New Jersey-based drug court program, and has trained teams to operate drug courts around the country, including the Grafton County team.
There are about 1,800 drug courts nationwide. A 2003 study by the National Justice Institute based on a sample of 17,000 drug court graduates nationwide found that within one year of arrest, only 16.5 percent had been rearrested and charged with a felony, and 27.5 after two years. That study found 38 drug courts with lower than a 10 percent recidivism rate one year after graduation.
Grafton County’s two-year program is open to non-violent adult offenders, including probation violators, who have a history of addiction and drug-or-alcohol-related crime and now face new criminal charges that are most likely to result in a prison term.
The county attorney’s office decides which offenders are appropriate for the drug court program. Referrals can be made by defense lawyers, law enforcement and even family members. The offenders accepted into the program enter a plea agreement which states that if they drop out of drug court, or fail to meet the requirements, they will be terminated from the program and will serve the prison term for the crime that led to the charges against them.
“There is no hiding. There are quick sanctions and a treatment team behind these participants,” Burling said. “If they are clean and sober and continuing to be on good behavior after two years, the court will consider vacating their conviction,” she added.
Grafton County committed about $100,000 in startup funds and resources to launch the pilot program, which expects to have five more participants enrolled by mid-June. The program has also applied to the U.S. Department of Justice for a $350,000 grant to finance the program. The estimated cost to house one prisoner in the Grafton County jail is $26,000 a year, compared to about $10,000 for each participant in drug court. But County Commissioner Michael Cryans, who is also the executive director of a substance abuse treatment center in Lebanon, said the county’s investment in drug court means more than just saving money.
“Our goal is to break that cycle (of drug-related crime) and improve the lives of the participants in the program so they can be productive members of society and not return to jail time and time again,” Cryans said.
The treatment team in Grafton County includes Judge Burling, Superior Court Clerk Robert Muh, Drug Court Coordinator Gasser, County Attorney Rick St. Hilaire, who initiated the program with the Grafton County Superior Court, Public Defender Gary Apfel, Superintendent Glenn Libby and Lt. Tom Elliott from the Grafton County House of Detention, and substance abuse counselor James O’Hearn. Evaluation and treatment for the first 90 days of the program will be provided by Dartmouth Hitchcock Medical Center in Lebanon
An independent review of the first year of operation of a similar adult drug court program in Strafford County Superior Court found there had been “significant progress toward” rehabilitating offenders with substance abuse problems by combining intense court supervision and sanctions with a focused effort to connect those offenders with community-based treatment programs. According to Strafford County Drug Treatment Court Coordinator Carrie D. Lover, 11 participants have graduated from the program and 36 are currently enrolled. Twelve participants did not complete the program, Lover said.
“We are changing their lives, and the lives of their families and of the generations who follow,” Lover said of the program graduates. “We are giving them treatment they wouldn’t have access to otherwise and in doing that, we are enhancing the safety of the public,” she said.
The Strafford study, by the New Hampshire Center for Public Policy Studies, reported that nearly 14 percent of arrests in Strafford County in 2003 were drug-related. The report also said estimates are that half of property crimes in the county are drug-driven.
Drug courts for juvenile offenders, which offer similar high intensity community-based supervision and treatment, are under way in District Courts in Concord, Plymouth, Laconia, Nashua, Derry and Claremont, and programs in Berlin and Ossipee are expected to begin in the next few months. Since the program began in District Court in 2001, 211 juveniles have participated and of those, 84 have graduated.
For more information about adult Drug Court, call the Grafton County Attorney’s Office at 603-787-6968. For information about juvenile drug court, call 603-271-6418.
Laura Kiernan, who writes press releases for the NH Supreme Court, is the Judicial Branch Communications Director.