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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

After 10 years, drug court verdict is in

Spokane County’s drug court program on Thursday celebrated its 10th year of creating NORPs.

That’s “normal ordinary responsible people,” according to Superior Court Judge Tari Eitzen, who borrowed the acronym from a California judge who also runs a drug court.

And it’s something 37-year-old Marla Peone-Clark is happy to be after 18 years of addiction.

“I get to be a mom today and be responsible and pay bills,” said Peone-Clark, who graduated from drug court in October 2002.

The South Hill woman had abused a number of drugs, starting with alcohol, and wound up addicted to methamphetamine.

That drug “is just eating us up alive,” Eitzen said, noting that 66 percent of drug court participants are addicted to meth.

“I had a major drug problem, and I couldn’t get out of it,” said Peone-Clark, who lost her job and was charged with drug possession. “I tried to quit on my own, and of course I couldn’t.”

A 21-day treatment program was no help, either, but a year of intensive treatment and supervision in drug court did the trick. Peone-Clark has been clean for three years and is working again, as a caregiver for developmentally delayed children.

She said she had doubts when she entered drug court, and the program was “pretty intense” at first.

“Right at the first, the judge wasn’t my favorite person,” Peone-Clark said. “Now, I love her to death because she saved my life.”

She said she found inspiration in demonstrating her progress to Eitzen and having “somebody being proud of you and showing that they care for you.”

Thursday’s anniversary coincided with Eitzen’s departure from the program, which she shepherded for five years. Judge James Murphy presided over the drug court’s first five years and Judge Linda Tompkins will take over Jan. 1.

Eitzen will direct a similar, new program for family disputes. She’ll be the county’s “unified family court judge,” a one-stop jurist for domestic problems from A to Z.

Eitzen said she hadn’t expected to be the drug court judge so long, but continuity is important for people who are struggling with addiction.

Those who enroll in the program take a big risk. They must waive their right to a trial, and acknowledge that the police reports used to charge them are accurate. They are almost always convicted as charged if they fail a year or more of drug testing, treatment and training.

In regular court, drug defendants probably would be allowed to plead guilty to reduced charges. But if drug court participants succeed, their criminal charges and drug dependence both go away.

“They put it all on the line,” Eitzen said. “They want to be clean so badly that they do it. I’ve seen tremendous, tremendous demonstrations of human courage in drug court.”

Spokane County’s drug court – one of 1,621 in the nation and 35 in Washington – has graduated 250 people, including 68 so far this year. The success rate is slightly less than 50 percent. In 10 years, 263 participants have failed, including 49 so far this year.

In Idaho, Kootenai County’s drug court just celebrated its seven-year anniversary.

Nearly 300 people have gone through the 18-month drug court since its inception and 123 have graduated. There are 39 people currently enrolled.

Those who succeed continue to succeed.

Depending on which study is consulted, between 45 percent and 85 percent of ordinary drug felons go on to commit new crimes, Eitzen said. Lorenzo Driggs, director of Northeast Washington Treatment Alternatives, puts the recidivism rate at 65 percent.

Driggs and Eitzen agree, however, that studies show fewer than 10 percent of drug court “graduates” re-offend.

“In comparison with any other method of addressing felony offenders with an addiction, it’s just tremendously more successful,” Eitzen said of the national drug court movement. “The reason I think it is successful is because you’ve got the carrot and the stick.”

Driggs, who has been involved with the local drug court since its inception, believes the key to success is closing the gap between courts and treatment providers such as his Spokane nonprofit corporation.

“In treatment, people don’t feel they have to be accountable to the courts, and in court they don’t feel they have to be accountable to treatment providers,” Driggs said.

In drug court, both sides compare notes regularly. A favorable verdict requires at least a year of success in a five-stage program of drug or alcohol treatment, training, employment and monitoring. Also, victim restitution and court costs must be paid in full.

In the first stage, participants undergo random drug tests at least twice a week and meet with their probation officers and case managers twice monthly. They also must attend at least five “self-help” and group counseling sessions a week, and discuss their progress with a judge as often as weekly.

The requirements are gradually relaxed but never eliminated as participants work their way through the program. Attempts to cheat and persistent relapses can result in expulsion, but a relapse that is reported may be taken in stride.

Only those most likely to succeed get a chance to try. People charged with violent crimes, sex crimes or drug dealing, and those who owe more than $2,500 to victims need not apply.

Those who are accepted must pay a relatively small portion of the approximately $5,000-per-person program cost, calculated on a sliding scale based on income. If participants don’t have jobs, they are trained if necessary and referred to employers willing to hire drug court them.