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Drug Courts Change Lives — and Save Money

Sunday, March 08, 2015
Back in 2008, I appeared before the Grafton County legislative delegation seeking $180,000 to fully establish the second drug court program in the state of New Hampshire, completing a process that had begun a couple of years earlier. When I was finished, one of the legislators raised his hand with a question. It was not one I expected. “Why so little?” he said. “I almost lost my grandson to addiction, and it took a lot of money and love to bring him back.”

He was right about that. With the Grafton County Drug Court recently having admitted its 100th participant, I can assure you that money and love are essential. But so is a highly structured program that offers incentives and provides for sanctions as drug addicts engage in the fight of their lives — or maybe more accurately, the fight for their lives.

After two years of study and training, the Grafton County Drug Court was set up in Superior Court as an alternative to jail for non-violent felony defendants who have long histories of criminal activity and severe addiction, but who are willing to try to change their lives. Many have been able to do so. Since then, for example, 12 have regained custody of their children; five have given birth to drug-free babies; five have earned their GED; 12 have enrolled in college; five started their own businesses; one was reinstated into his professional career.

This has been accomplished at an average cost to Grafton County taxpayers of about $13,000 to $15,000 a year per participant, based on 16 to 25 participants. (These costs may be substantially reduced if New Hampshire remains committed to the Affordable Care Act, which may pay for addiction treatment.) By contrast, the cost to incarcerate a defendant in a county jail or the state prison ranges from $35,000 to $37,000 a year.

That’s not the only way in which Grafton County Drug Court saves money. Our mission is not only to help participants get sober and stay that way, but also to change their lifestyle. If we are able to do that, society benefits in many ways — for example, in babies born drug-free; children returned from foster care to their parents; families reunited; women better prepared to be self-sufficient; and the revolving door of arrest, incarceration and re-arrest ended. And since the inception of the program, Grafton County has received $40,363 in participant fees, and the state has received over $21,200 to be distributed as restitution from those who have graduated.

The 18-to-24-month program consists of four phases. In phase one, the participant is required to come to court weekly and discuss his or her progress with the presiding judge and a team made up of the judge, the county attorney, the public defender, a coordinator, a case manager, a treatment professional, a clinical evaluator, a representative of the Department of Corrections and a county court clerk.

In addition, the participant must have a job; undergo nine hours of substance abuse treatment a week; attend a minimum of three Alcoholics Anonymous and/or Narcotics Anonymous or other community support group sessions a week; pay a weekly sum of $10 toward the cost of the program; and be subject to random visits and urine tests from a supervision officer. Phases two, three and four provide some step-downs from these requirements.

If the participant successfully completes the four phases and graduates — which is by no means always the case — he or she may apply to the court after one year to have the felony offense to which the participant pleaded guilty when he or she entered the program removed from the record. I can’t emphasize enough how important this is to the future prospects of participants. As The New York Times reported recently, men with criminal records account for about 34 percent of all nonworking men between the ages of 25 and 54.

How do offenders enter the drug court program? Referrals come from many sources, including public defenders, private defense attorneys, law enforcement officers, Superior Court judges, members of the public, and the county attorney. All applications are reviewed by the county attorney to ensure that the applicant has no record of violence in the past or currently and is not a Drug Dealer. (I use the capital D to point out that many drug addicts deal at some time or other to sustain their habit. The capital D dealer is the one who is selling in the community solely for profit.) If the applicant is deemed suitable by the county attorney, a plea offer is made setting forth the terms of entry, including the prescribed term of incarceration if the applicant is terminated from the program. The applicant is then evaluated to determine the extent of addiction and extent, if any, of mental health problems, and what program of treatment is appropriate. The team then votes whether to admit the applicant. If approved, the applicant must then plead guilty to the felony charge or charges set forth in the plea offer in order to enter. The program is strictly voluntary; the applicant must decide whether to enter this rigorous program or proceed in the regular course of criminal justice proceedings.

Upon entering the program, the rules and procedures are clearly outlined to the participant. Failure to adhere to them may result in a sanction. Sanctions range from an admonishment from the judge to short terms of incarceration in the county jail. Ultimately, if the participant demonstrates by his or her conduct that he or she is not committed to recovery, then he or she may be terminated. It is interesting to note that some of those who have been dismissed from the drug court later contact team members saying that although they were not ready for it at the time, they had learned a great deal from the program and they are prepared now to use the tools they learned in pursuing a new life. The law of readiness is a compelling factor in success.

Overall, 53.5 percent of participants successfully complete the Grafton County Drug Court program, which is above the national average for drug courts. Dr. Ben Nordstrom, director of addiction services at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center, who has studied drug courts, says of our model, “The Grafton County Drug Court (has) a well-trained and highly motivated team that really embraces what problem-solving courts are all about without compromising on their primary mission, which is public safety.”

Noteworthy is that while 63 percent of men have completed the Grafton County program, only 44 percent of women have done so; 30 percent of men have been terminated versus 43 percent of women. Studies indicate that women embarking on drug court programs enter with feelings of guilt and lack of self-esteem. It has been suggested that up to 90 percent of female participants in drug courts have been physically and/or sexually abused, and these issues leading to self-medication must be first addressed. We have been fortunate in addressing these disparities with financial help of the Hanover Women’s Leadership Council, the United Way and Headrest. Through their funding, four treatment counselors received specialized training that is believed to have led to a 10 percent increase in the completion rate of women to its current level.

Community support has been important in other respects as well. Shortly after the program was started, a 501(c)3 charitable trust was created, The Friends of the Grafton County Drug Court, which allows private citizens to donate tax-free funds to provide additional support for the program. Since its inception, the Friends group has raised in excess of $50,000 for such support as loans to pay fines allowing participants to regain their drivers’ licenses; loans for repairs to vehicles to enable drivers to safely transport themselves and often others to treatment and court; college tuitions; books; dentures; short-term gym memberships; and many other items which would not be appropriately paid for by government funds. The loans must be paid in full prior to graduation. The Friends also support a rewards program for participants.

I first heard the words “drug court” in the year 2000 when I was an assistant prosecutor in Ocean County, N.J. My then-boss called me into his office and said that state court administrators had ordered implementation of a new program called the drug court. He added, “Don’t worry, it’s probably just another one of those hug-a-thug programs that will disappear in a year.”

How wrong he was. There are now more than 2,700 drug courts in the United States, and they exist in every state and territory. I have learned from my training and experience that drug courts work by changing lives. Out of that conviction, I became a consultant for the National Association of Drug Court Professionals and the American University Assistance Program for Drug Courts. As I result I have helped train new drug court teams from South Dakota to Georgia.

It is a source of great satisfaction that I was able to help Grafton County in establishing the second drug court in New Hampshire — along with a lot of people who were willing to give it a try: businessman Bill Sahlman; then-County Attorney Rick St. Hilaire; then-Superior Court Judge Jean Burling; County Commissioner Mike Cryans; attorney Gary Apfel; Jim Alexander, then the Lebanon police chief; Greg Norman, then a consultant for Dartmouth-Hitchcock’s Community Health Improvement Department; Chief County Court Clerk Bob Muh; and then-director of the Department of Corrections Glenn Libby.

There are now six drug courts in New Hampshire — although the state pays for none of them. County taxpayers and temporary grants do. I hope that eventually every county in New Hampshire will have a drug court financed by the state, as is mostly the case outside New Hampshire. Because when troubled people change their lives for the better, everyone benefits.

Robert Gasser lives in Grantham and is community relations and training officer for the Grafton County Drug Court.

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