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Justice Officials Eye Expansion of Drug Courts: Part I

NEXT: Part II: Justice Officials Eye Expansion of Drug Courts

Once a person is convicted of a drug crime in Indiana, there are, at best, two choices: Go to jail or enter the drug court system — which can take up to two years, but can result in the drug charges being reduced or dropped if the offender completes the course. It’s a difficult path, and one some opt not to take…

“Jail is definitely easier,” Jeff Yanis said. He’s the Marion County Drug Court Coordinator.

“There are a lot of things they have to go through in Drug Court…It’s a lot more intense. They have to do a lot more than what they normally would on probation or parole or whatever they’re on,” he said. “Yeah, I would agree. Jail would be a lot easier because you just do your time and you’re done and you walk out the door. You can’t do that with us. We demand more. We expect more. And sometimes that’s the hardest part.”

But judges, like Michael Rader of the Vigo Superior Court, say drug courts have been difficult for them to adjust to, as well.

“It took a while to get the right sense of perspective, the right kind of tone about how to be a neutral sitting judge… Because in listening sometimes to a case the tendency was to argue one side of the others case or to interpose yourself by asking questions and so forth,” Rader said. “So, I’ve had to step back a little bit; it’s a little bit more passive role I guess in a sense of, active in a sense that you have to be listening and thinking through the case and thinking about legal issues and anticipating legal issues and doing legal research and so forth. But you’re no longer a lawyer; you’re really a judge.”

In Monroe County, 44 percent of those who are eligible for the drug court program opt for jail instead. And Monroe County officials say twice as many people who opt out of the program eventually get in trouble with the law again as those who graduate from it.

Monroe Circuit Court Judge Mary Ellen Diekhoff says drug courts – and the judges who oversee them — may also suffer from a perception they don’t deserve.

“In traditional court, there is that barrier. I sit elevated in a black robe obviously I don’t stand that close to anybody in a court room, but those banners come down in drug court, and I really do think that’s a huge part of the success of drug court,” Diekhoff said.

An estimated 26,000 people across the country work with drug courts in some way, but even that number staffs only enough courts to reach ten percent of the U.S. population. West Huddleston, CEO of the National Association of Drug Court Professionals:

“Because drug courts are so demonstratively effective they really need to be expanded in a huge way. Right now there are 2.3 million Americans locked up behind bars. Two-thirds of them are there because of a substance abuse problem and half of those individuals are clinically addicted to drugs,” Huddleston said. “We have a better way in drug court and a cheaper way in drug court. With the 2,369 drug court we’re only serving about 10% of the eligible population that would benefit from drug court so we need to expand drug court to reach at least 1.2 million people who need us.”

The ultimate goal, Huddleston says, is to have a drug court system in reach of every citizen in the United States, and within the next 50 years make the drug court system part of the principles for any court structure. In order to do that though—it takes a lot more than hope.

“First and foremost is dollars. Congress has really taken a huge step in ensuring that drug courts are expanded. Four years ago for example the federal government only gave drug courts nationally about $10.3 million,” he said. “This morning where we sit the feds have $64.8 dollars for drug courts. And the House and the Senate just passed a report for the FY 2010 budget for $88.8 million-dollars, so in these tough economic times where the state budgets are in such trouble congress is truly coming through with federal dollars to sustain and grow these programs.”

In the second part of this series, a more in-depth look at the Monroe County Drug Court system and interviews with two recent graduates of the program, as well as a current participant.

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