After two years of quiet preparation, Spokane County’s Drug Court is poised for takeoff.
A long list of criminal-justice officials has signed off on the experimental diversion program, including newly elected Prosecutor Jim Sweetser.
A judge has eagerly volunteered, eligibility standards have been drafted and treatment providers are ready and willing.
All that’s needed is money.
This week, Drug Court proponents are finalizing a request for $329,000 in federal money - enough to bankroll the program for about 18 months.
Spokane County is among 25 communities nationwide selected to compete for up to $5 million in U.S. Bureau of Justice Assistance seed money. Grants will be awarded this summer.
In Drug Court, addicts and alcoholics will be given a choice: Complete a year of treatment or go to jail or prison.
“We want to get users into a program where we can break the cycle of addiction,” said Superior Court Judge James Murphy, who wants to preside over the new program.
Like most judges, Murphy is frustrated by the never-ending parade of drug defendants entering and reentering his courtroom. Many steal or rob to support their habits and never get treatment - greasing the slide to prison.
“If you put them in jail as a user, they just get out a short time later and get high again. Then they commit more crimes,” Murphy said. “If you break the cycle of addiction, you break the criminal cycle as well.”
He visited the drug court in Portland, and walked away impressed by the desire of participants to be clean of drugs and take responsibility for themselves.
Even so, the prosecutor calls for careful monitoring of the Spokane Drug Court once it is up and running.
“This is a pilot program,” Sweetser cautioned. “We’ll measure it, check the results, and if it doesn’t accomplish our goal of protecting the community, I’ll pull out of it.”
The Spokane County Law and Justice Council, the criminal-justice alliance pushing Drug Court, began studying the idea two years ago as a means of reducing pressure on the County Jail.
Council members attended seminars and visited drug courts in other states. In recent months, similar programs have sprouted in Seattle and Tacoma.
But the biggest breakthrough came last week, when Sweetser, Murphy and others agreed on eligibility standards. Excluded from the program will be drug dealers, persons with other pending felonies, and anyone with convictions as an adult for sex crimes or violent crimes.
Initially, Drug Court would handle about 50 drug possession defendants a year.
Backsliding during the initial intensive treatment phase is expected. Relapses are tolerated, as long as the participant is showing some measure of progress.
“Our goal is to deal with the problem with treatment, not punishment,” said Spokane County District Court Judge Richard White, a leading advocate.
“It’s been demonstrated that just locking them up isn’t the answer, because there’s a revolving door there,” said James Smith, research analyst with the Law and Justice Council.
Treatment Alternatives to Street Crime, a Spokane drug-monitoring program, will provide initial screening and treatment referrals, following up with random drug-testing.
Murphy’s goal is a 50 percent recovery rate, meaning half the offenders going through the program stay clean and crime-free.
If that happens, advocates point to huge potential cost savings: A year in prison costs $25,000 per inmate; drug Court would spend $2,000 per participant.
Initially, defendants entering the program will come before the judge twice a month, building a unique parent-like relationship.
Murphy, tough but personable, was the obvious choice for the job.
“You’ve got to work one-on-one with an individual to frighten, cajole, do whatever it takes. I’ve seen it work,” he said.
“Sitting on the bench…I see the same faces coming through, year after year, and I see this as a ray of hope.”
MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: Entering Drug Court Spokane County’s proposed Drug Court limits participation to defendants charged with possession of controlled substances or forged prescriptions, with no evidence of intent to sell. Intent to sell is presumed if the offender is caught with more than the following amounts: Crack cocaine - 2 grams. Cocaine - 10 grams. Heroin - 1 gram. Methamphetamine - 10 grams. LSD 10 doses. Marijuana - 90 grams. Defendants eligible for Drug Court must be first-time participants with Spokane-area ties, have no other pending felonies, and have no adult sex or violent offenses. Source: Spokane County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office.