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Bar News - July 16, 2014

Court News: Nashua to Start Drug Court Pilot


Hillsborough County has the most drug addicts of any jurisdiction in New Hampshire, and yet it also is one of the few counties without an alternative sentencing program designed to address the root of drug-related crime.

After about a year of preparation and training, NH Superior Court Judge Jacalyn Colburn and an interdisciplinary team in Nashua are launching a small-scale pilot drug court this summer in an effort to combat the increasing problem of opiate addiction in the Nashua area.

Teams at both Hillsborough County North and South superior courts have each applied for one of 64 implementation grants being awarded nationwide through the US Bureau of Justice Assistance this year – an unusual move given that both courts are in the same county. Although they won’t know until late September whether the three-year, $350,000 grants are awarded, Colburn and her team decided to get started anyway.

“We’ve been ready to go now for some time and really through the generosity of Greater Nashua Mental Health, we’re able to get started ahead of the grant,” the judge said recently.

The Greater Nashua Mental Health Center, which works with the Circuit Court in Nashua on the mental health court program, has agreed to treat three drug court participants at no cost. Manchester-based company Occupational Drug Testing provided a grant for urine testing cups for the Nashua program.

Drug courts combine suspended prison sentences and strict court monitoring with intensive substance abuse treatment, random drug screenings and other court-ordered outpatient programs. The result is a carrot-and-stick model that keeps offenders out of prison cells as long as they stay clean and follow a treatment plan. National research over the past 25 years has found that this model works best for offenders who are at the highest risk for reoffending and have a high need for substance abuse treatment.

Colburn, who in May attended a conference of the National Association of Drug Court Professionals, said the Nashua team plans to implement all of the national best practices for drug courts. These include a series of three screenings for potential drug court participants. The first is a legal screening that seeks to eliminate potential candidates either facing or with prior convictions for violent offenses.

“If they pass that first screening, then they go through two more sub-screenings. One is a criminogenic screening by the department of corrections field services… If the person screens as high-risk for re-offense, then they go on to the third screening, which is done by the treatment professionals to determine whether they are in fact high need for substance abuse services,” Colburn explained.

If the Nashua team receives the federal grant, Colburn said, the court anticipates it could have up to 40 participants in the program during the three-year grant period. The hope is that the county government, after seeing proof that the program works – as quantified by lower incarceration costs and recidivism rates – would take over funding for the drug court in the fourth year.

And from the bench where Colburn sits, drug court looks like the only way to address the growing problem of drug addiction in Nashua.

“I can lock people up all day long,” she said. “That’s not hard to do from a practical standpoint, but most of the people would not otherwise be criminals if you took away the substance abuse piece.”

“The traditional method of incarcerating drug addicts to stop crime just doesn’t work,” she said. “Often they’re worse off when they come out than when they went in… You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to figure out that we have a really severe opiate problem in southern Hillsborough County, so am I frustrated? Yes. I’m hoping that this will make a difference.”

As a judicial system intervention in what many view as a public health problem, drug courts have been shown nationally to reduce recidivism rates by as much as 40 percent in some jurisdictions. That reduces costs and increases community safety, but Colburn sees other benefits as well.

“You end up changing their lives for the better, and they become productive citizens, which they weren’t before,” she said.

NH Superior Court Chief Justice Tina Nadeau, a staunch proponent of drug courts and other alternative sentencing programs, has pitching the model to court, county and state officials across New Hampshire. Currently, there drug courts operating in Rockingham, Grafton, Strafford, Cheshire and Belknap counties. Sullivan County has developed a jail drug treatment and aftercare program.

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