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Sat., July 15, 2017

Larry Haskell: Drug court column left out key points

Shawn Vestal’s June 30 column, “Spokane Prosecutor Larry Haskell’s ‘get tough’ policies hinder successful drug court,” attempted to create an impression that the current reduced number of participants in drug court is solely due to my policies. This is not the case, and the Washington State University report from which he quotes bears this out. The headline and article are extremely misleading and fail to address other critical concerns addressed in the report that are detailed below.

While campaigning in 2014, I promised the public that I would aggressively prosecute both violent and chronic property offenders, who have been out in our neighborhoods victimizing our citizens and businesses, sometimes almost immediately upon their release from jail or prison. I promised that where statutorily eligible and suitable, chronic offenders would be given treatment opportunities with the Department of Corrections; and we are doing that. My policies reflect legislative intent.

Nevertheless, my prosecutors continue to offer hundreds of drug court opportunities every year to those individuals who have a demonstrated treatment need but have not yet reached the “chronic” criminal activity stage. (Notably, the report points out that the county drug court program has graduated over 550 clients in the last 21 years. My office is currently on pace to provide over 550 drug court offers to felony offenders in 2017 alone, a number that has been largely consistent since I took office in 2015. And we are set to expand the categories of eligible offenders in September of this year.)

Mr. Vestal quotes liberally, but selectively, from an evaluation of the Spokane County Drug Court that was prepared by Dr. Zachary Hamilton, an associate professor of criminology at WSU. However, Mr. Vestal chose to leave out numerous concerns Dr. Hamilton addressed that contribute to the current drug court deficiencies.

Left out: Dr. Hamilton states that, overall, the drug court has had consistent and positive impacts, though he does make recommendations for improvement.

Left out: In 2015, a new treatment provider, Pioneer Human Services, was awarded the contract to oversee drug court treatment in Spokane County. Dr. Hamilton asserts this event to be of “primary importance.” Why? The former provider, Northeast Washington Treatment Alternatives (NEWTA), had business practices that were of concern due to the potential for inaccurate reporting of violations of the strict drug court national guidelines. This is important because accurate and truly random testing is a critical requirement for success of the drug court program. In addition, Dr. Hamilton points out that NEWTA’s policies and procedures allowed persons enrolled in drug court to stay in housing arrangements that did not police (monitor) for continued substance use.

Left out: A member of the Public Defender’s Office, who was its key representative to the drug court up until just recently, sat on the board of directors of NEWTA at the time. The report states that this person expressed disappointment at the switch in treatment providers. As to this issue, the report concludes that “lack of buy-in from an individual team member may lead to difficulties in team decision-making and operation,” i.e., lower numbers of participants.

Left out: The role played by the assigned drug court judge. The report points out that the judge who oversaw the operation of the drug court since 2015 had expressed “some reluctance to graduate sanctions” (punish) for violations in accordance with the program standards and guidelines and the national 10 Key Components, which are of critical importance to successful drug court outcomes. The report notes that such departures create the possibility for adverse and non-optimal outcomes.

I strongly believe in early intervention and crime prevention. There are other drug court options that treat a wide variety of offender needs at lower levels of intensity and cost. These alternative tracks are detailed in the National Drug Court literature but are not currently used in Spokane County. If implemented, these options are likely to reduce the number of chronic offenders on our streets.

I have the authority and the duty to act on your behalf when they refuse voluntary treatment options and continue on a criminal path.

Larry Haskell is the Spokane County prosecuting attorney.

If you'd like to submit an opinion piece, contact Opinion Editor Gary Crooks at or (509) 459-5026.

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