A new drug treatment court, a collaboration between the court system and Piedmont Community Services (PCS), is looking to take drug offenders out of the jails and into treatment. The court currently operates in Henry County with the goal of expanding into Martinsville and eventually Patrick County.
Kelly Koebel, Senior Assistant Director of Clinical Services at PCS, is the coordinator. She said there is a stark difference between treatment courts and traditional courts.
“Drug courts are specialty dockets that were approved by the Supreme Court, and the big difference between traditional courts and drug courts is that traditional courts are really about punishment for breaking a law. Treatment courts, the culture is different. We are focused on encouraging someone to succeed and treatment,” she said.
After attempting to get the court up and running for many years, the current state of the drug epidemic in the area finally urged it along, but it would not have been possible without people behind it championing for it, Koebel said.
“It’s a conversation that had been going on many years. I think the real impetuous or trigger this go round is just how bad the opioids have been in our community, and we just had some people really champion this effort,” she said.
The late Jim Tobin, former executive director of Piedmont Community Services, and Martinsville Police Chief Eddie Cassady were among the driving forces, Koebel said.
The court first began in January and enrolled its first participant in April. The referral process is simple, but has been slow with only five participants so far, prompting the court to start trying to get the word out about the option. The court aims to eventually have 20 participants at a time.
To be considered as a participant, “the defense attorney and the defendant would actually first need to have the conversation about, ‘Do you want to do drug court?’ Once they make that decision, the defense attorney contacts a commonwealth attorney and they decide on a plea,” Koebel said.
The person is required to plead guilty to their charge. The plea agreement may stipulate a reduction of the charge, or a dismissal upon completion of the program.
The agreement also outlines consequences for those who fail to complete the program.
“Typically, you will get a longer sentence than you would if you just go ahead and get your sentence today,” Koebel said.
Referrals are screened by the Commonwealth Attorney’s office. Those that move forward to the next step are sent to PCS for an assessment.
“We use a tool called the RANT, and that helps us decide if they are high risk and high needs. We want people that are high risk and high needs. If they’re low risk and low needs, the likelihood is they don’t need something as intensive as a drug treatment court,” Koebel said.
However, the treatment court is not an easy path. According to Koebel, “a good bit” is expected out of the participants in this five-stage program.
“The first phases of our court are pretty intense in terms of involvement. They are required to comply with any service recommendations from their mental health and substance use assessment,” she said. “For most of our people, that is going to be a minimum of nine hours a week of treatment. They have court every two weeks, they have a curfew that is being checked, they will have at least two random drug screens a week.”
As participants move through the program and become more stable, the expectations change and increase.
“We have community service hours that are required in phase two through five. We require them to start peer recovery groups. We’re working on financial issues and medical issues and” housing concerns, Koebel said, and added that some of the later phases require participants to either work or seek additional education.
“There’s actually a good bit of requirements,” she said.
“The program lasts a minimum of one year, with at least 90 consecutive days of sobriety required for graduation.
Participants are connected with many different services to help throughout the course of the program, such as extensive counseling, employment training, peer groups, medication assisted treatment, and more.
The ultimate success of the program is graduation. Despite the fact that the court has not been operational long enough to have a graduation rate, state statistics and current participant progress are reasons for hope.
“I think we’re really actually doing pretty well,” Koebel said. “The average graduation rate is around 55 to 60 percent, it fluctuates a good bit. But, out of the individuals that we have, two have already gotten over 80 days clean, which is amazing. They’re really still early on, only in phase two, and for them to already be abstinent for this amount of time is a huge testament to how well they’re doing.”
State courts have also seen a reduced rate of recidivism as a result of drug courts.
“What we’re really looking at is, research has kind of shown a 50% reduction in recidivism for people that are involved in and successfully complete drug court. And we know that a lot of crimes, they’re not all drug related crimes, but a lot of them can actually be if you take it back to what the person is doing,” Koebel said.
There also is a cost savings. Treatment courts oftentimes save localities money as opposed to housing offenders as inmates.
“It’s actually cheaper to have someone go through a drug court, even though drug courts are not free, it is cheaper from a locality standpoint than housing an inmate. Housing an inmate can become pretty financially expensive,” Koebel said.
Koebel said estimated incarceration costs $60 to 65 per day per inmate. She estimated that over a six-month period, the treatment court saves a locality $5,000 per person. The state average is that one successful participant saves a locality $21,000.
Ultimately, though, the goal of the drug treatment court is to help individuals get back on their feet.
“The other thing that we’re really trying to work on with these individuals is to make them successful members of our society. Help them to get jobs, go through some job training, maybe some additional education if their career requires it. Also helping them to kind of reunite with their family and friends that they have burned bridges. For parents, that might be at some point, regaining custody of their children,” Koebel said.
While the treatment court saves localities money, funding is needed. Grants and state funding are being sought and organizers are hoping intended service areas will help.
“We actually were in City Council meeting to talk with them about needing some funds so we can expand into to city. So far, we have only been operating in the county. We are supposed to be at the Board of Supervisors meeting in Henry County in December to have a similar discussion,” Koebel said.
The drug treatment court hopes to expand services to Martinsville and eventually Patrick County. All three locations are within the same judicial district, so no additional applications would need to be made.
It also intends to add more programs, such as family programs, alumni programs, and more. At the end of the day, though, the goal is simple.
“Our goal is to really get people out of the jails and get them into treatment where they can get better,” Koebel said.