A county department that funds a world-recognized drug rehabilitation program is offering to sacrifice it to help balance Multnomah County’s budget.
Officials come from across the nation and around the globe to learn from the county’s Sanctions Treatment Opportunity Progress court program — the second-oldest of nearly 2,000 drug courts in the United States — yet county officials say their funding outlook next fiscal year is so dire they must cut somewhere.
Those close to the county’s drug-court program, which offers people caught possessing drugs a chance to avoid a felony conviction if they become drug-free, say that eliminating funding for the $1.4 million program would be a costly mistake.
It would not only hurt addicts, but their children and society in general because some addicts will resort to crime to fuel their habits, they say.
“There will be an increase in drug overdoses, babies born drug addicted and child-welfare cases,” said Rick Berman, program director at InAct, the Volunteers of America drug treatment program where most drug court offenders enroll.
“The bottom line is people who desperately need treatment won’t be able to get treatment,” Laurie Hoyt Huffman, division director at InAct. “And that’s bad news for everyone.”
Officials from the Multnomah County Department of Community Justice, however, say there are no easy choices and they must follow a county mandate to slash their budget by 12 percent come July 1. And so they’ve recommended eliminating funding for the program.
That would mean hundreds of defendants addicted to meth, heroin, cocaine or other illegal drugs would flood Multnomah County’s traditional criminal justice system. If convicted, many would be given probation and ordered into drug treatment. But because of an already overtaxed system, many would get no more than an occasional letter asking them if they’d followed court orders.
“They can go through their entire probation without doing anything at all,” said Spencer Hahn, a public defender with Multnomah Defenders Inc..
Since its inception in 1991, Multnomah County’s STOP court has won the praise of prosecutors, defense attorneys and treatment providers and served as a model for some of the 1,900 drug-court programs that have sprung up across the country since, including courts in Clackamas, Clark and Washington counties. Visitors from as far off as Azerbaijan have sat in to learn by example.
The court keeps a watchful eye on hundreds of addicts who enter it each year. To enter the program, defendants must be charged with a nonviolent drug crime, chiefly possessing drugs or forging prescriptions. They also must plead guilty or no contest, with the understanding that their cases will be thrown out if they graduate. That means consistently going to treatment, taking random urine tests and enrolling in school or getting a job.
Those who flunk out are convicted.
At periodic graduation ceremonies, those who succeed get a lease on a new life, applause and a judge-ordered look at the often scary, angry or haggard-looking mug shots that were taken when police brought them in.
During a STOP court session earlier this week, Circuit Court Judge Christopher Marshall encouraged a 22-year-old woman who’d lost her job at Clackamas Town Center, then turned to meth. To show her how far she’s come since last getting high in July 2007, he offered her a sneak peak of the mug shot she will see at graduation.
“Oh my God, that’s so bad!” she exclaimed, a big smile breaking across her face.
Marshall offered kudos as he saw defendants with clean urine screenings and perfect attendance at drug treatment. He gave an unemployed and extraordinarily thin 28-year-old man a stern warning because he skipped out on more than four months of court dates and went on a drug binge.
This is your last chance, the judge told the man.
“You cannot miss another court date,” Marshall said. “Cars get flat tires. Children get ill. Catch the bus that gets you here an hour early.”
Although some drug court participants are homeless, unemployed or work minimum-wage jobs, others are white collar. The court has seen elementary school teachers, lawyers, dentists, doctors and plenty of college students.
The Department of Community Justice included STOP court along with a handful of other programs recommended for cuts, including a proposal to reduce drug treatment spots and the number of juveniles who are brought before a judge after being picked up by police.
Under the last proposal, fewer youth offenders would be found responsible for their crimes, ordered to do community service and apologize to victims. Instead, more juvenile offenders would simply receive letters after their arrests.
Jason Ziedenberg, a spokesman for the department, said department leaders think STOP court is successful, but they’ve placed a priority on the most dangerous offenders. In large part, that means devoting resources to sex offenders and other violent felons who’ve been released from prison.
The proposed cuts have been sent to Multnomah County Chairman Ted Wheeler, who will compile a proposed budget in April. Commissioners must agree on a new budget, effective in July.
Drug courts in Clackamas, Clark and Washington counties aren’t planning cuts to their programs at this time.
EXTRA – The Benefits of Drug Court, from the National Association of Drug Court Professionals