Battling back from despair

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

The new Elmore County Drug and DUI Court is starting to show dividends.

Coordinator Katie Ashby is asking for volunteers to help the program continue to move forward by forming a non-profit volunteer group that would help raise money and awareness for the program. A meeting of people interested in helping will be held Tuesday, Aug. 9, beginning at 4 p.m. in the basement of the courthouse.

The program, created and led by Elmore County Magistrate Judge George Hicks, is designed to "break the cycle" of alcohol and drug abuse that contribute to personal failures of offenders and, often, criminal activity.

It is part of a growing trend around the country to seek alternatives to traditional judicial punishments and is one of 56 drug courts now in operation in Idaho, alone.

The court is funded on a shoestring, using funds provided by the drug court funds administered by the state Supreme Court that helps pay Ashby's salary and some of the drug testing for participants (who also contribute to the costs for testing), a grant from the Office of Highway Safety that helps pay for the program's probation officer, about $1,500 from the county and fees charged to participants.

A person selected to take part in the drug court program pays anywhere from $40 a week for felony DUI offenders to $25 a week for most of the other participants, after paying an initial $100 "entrance fee."

Selection for participation in the program is not automatic. A set of criteria based on state guidelines are used to determine initial eligibility by county prosecutor Kristina Schindele, who serves as the "gatekeeper" for the program, Ashby said. The individuals who pass that step are referred to Ashby, who then puts them through a second screening process.

Those selected for the program meet at least once a week, sometimes more often initially, "as a team," with Ashby, Hicks, representatives of the county prosecutor and public defender's offices and local law enforcement. They also have one-on-one meetings with program officials that range from at least once a week to begin with and up to once a month as they successfully progress through the program.

During the difficult first two stages of the four-phase program, the participants also have a probation officer visit their home approximately two days a week, plus they are tested three times a week to make sure they remain alcohol or drug free.

They also have to join a support group, such as Alcoholics Anonymous or Narcotics Anonymous, and attend meetings at least two to three times a week, as well as meeting other conditions imposed by the program.

"The biggest complaint we get (from the participants) is they didn't realize how hard this was going to be," Ashby said.

But it is beginning to work, she said, and most of the participants are starting to see their lives turn around.

The drug court was created by Hicks in October 2010, "because Judge Hicks got tired of seeing the same people coming back to his court with the same problems over and over again and not having their (fundamental) issues addressed," Ashby said.

To successfully pass through the program will take a minimum of about 14 months, Ashby explained, although it could take as long as 18-24 months, depending on the progress of the participants and how often they have setbacks.

"The first two phases (of the program) are very heavy," with intensive monitoring of participants, Ashby said. "The last two (phases) are a little easier, and should go quicker."

During the weekly meetings with Hicks, the judge evaluates the progress each participant has made. Those who have done well are rewarded, sometimes with something as simple as a piece of candy, perhaps a gift card donated by a local merchant, or a certificate of achievement.

All the rewards come from donations from the community, "which has been very supportive of what we're trying to do," Ashby said, but more donations are always needed. "The biggest thing, I think, is hearing the judge tell them they're doing a good job, and to keep it up."

A total of 19 people have been entered into the program since it began. One failed to make progress and was returned to the regular courts for sentencing. One, "absconded and disappeared from the area," Ashby said.

So far, ten months into the program, none of the remaining 17 have completed Phase II, but at least 14 are close to moving on.

One of the many criteria for advancement in the program is to get a job.

At first, it was difficult for many of them, and not just because of the economy.

Participants usually have felony DUI charge against them (or multiple misdemeanor DUIs), or had serious drug abuse issues that often resulted in them engaging in other low-level criminal activity (major drug dealers and violent crime offenders cannot participate).

That made it tough for them to find work, but as they have moved through the program, recently more and more of them are starting to find jobs and return as productive members of society, which is what the program is all about.

Two members have limitations that would make it difficult for them to work, but have become involved in volunteer work, instead.

One of the big pushes for the program, and one of its major problems, is finding "safe and sober housing" for the participants, Ashby said.

"We have no shelters or transitional homes here" to aid the participants in recovering, Ashby said.

Without jobs and "at the income levels we normally see" from initial participants, Ashby said, most can't afford regular housing, and because of their records, those with felony records are typically excluded from qualifying for low-income housing. Some also have no-contact orders that prevent them from utilizing family housing resources.

"Some of the local churches have put them up for a weekend or so, but there's nothing here long-term," Ashby said. She hopes the volunteer group -- Friends of the Elmore County Drug Court -- will be able to help address that issue.

Besides dealing with a participant's substance abuse issues, the other goal of the drug court is eliminating the criminal behavior that is often tied to drug and alcohol abuse.

There are penalties for falling back into old habits, or failing a drug test. "We expect some setbacks," Ashby said, "but we deal with them through sanctions and treatment."

In addition to jail time required by law, such as for a felony DUI, Hicks can send someone back to jail for short periods of time if they suffer a setback. He also can order community service, writing assignments and increased treatment and monitoring programs.

Each participant has a tailored treatment and case plan designed to address the specific individual's problems.

"Right now, we've got 17 participants that are busting their butts to succeed. It's amazing to see the sense of pride they have in their sobriety, in getting jobs, in being able to take care of their kids again," Ashby said. "We're really seeing some great changes."

Drug court is held every Tuesday at 3 p.m. in the courthouse, and Ashby said the public is always welcome to attend "to see what we do."

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