9th Judicial District drug court saving tax dollars, helping addicts
Ryan Summerlin September 19, 2013
Editor’s note: This is the third and final story in a series about the drug court in the 9th Judicial District, The first two stories ran on Sept. 8 and Sept. 11.
GLENWOOD SPRINGS — The adult drug court of the 9th Judicial District, started 12 years ago by the late Chief Judge T. Peter Craven, is still somewhat in its infancy in certain ways.
The program has graduated a total of only 121 people in the seven-year period from January 2005 to June 2012, the last date for which statistics have been compiled, under rules and judicial guidance that is designed to give convicted felons an alternative to going to prison.
But the head probation official for the district, Will Sightler, said on Tuesday that those numbers do not tell the whole story.
Of the 121 graduated, Sightler explained, 74 (or 61 percent) made it all the way through the program without breaking the law, backsliding in their obligations to undergo drug testing and therapy, or relapsing into drug use, which is the “success story” hailed by the program and his supporters.
The numbers, he said, “show people who have graduated or been deemed successful in addressing their drug addictions.”
The remaining 47 people (39 percent), Sightler said, did not make it through the program and were sent back to regular court for sentencing on their original charges.
Generally, the drug court program is headed up by District Court Judge Denise Lynch, with the addition of probation officer Mark Smith and local therapist John Dent-Romero to make up the drug court “team.” The program offers a chance for convicted felons, who admit they have a serious drug or alcohol addiction problem, to avoid prison and get sober.
The regimen is strict, requiring frequent appearances before Judge Lynch in court, close supervision by Smith and Dent-Romero, and frequent urine analyses (UAs) to check for drugs or alcohol in the defendant’s system.
Sightler explained that the state laws governing drug court require that defendants pay the costs incurred by their participation in drug court, at least in theory.
“But we know that many of them cannot pay, or cannot pay the whole amount,” he said, noting that those costs mainly come from charges for the UAs and the therapy sessions mandated by the program.
Some defendants, he said, can and do pay their costs, but the probation department usually pays whatever a defendant cannot afford.
“I’d say it’s less than $50,000 a year,” he said of the costs to the department, adding, “It’s a challenge, but we try and make sure that money is not the reason people fail.” Often, he said, the defendant can pay the cost of the UAs, and the department picks up the tab for the therapy. Some of the funding for these payments comes from the state’s Correctional Cash Treatment Fund, approved last year by the state Legislature, and some of it from the probation department’s own budget when needed.
Typically within a year and a half or so, after making it through the four phases of the program, defendants either graduate or they fail to make it and are sent back for normal sentencing.
Lynch said that several agencies, including the Garfield County Sheriff’s Office, the district public defenders’ office and District Attorney Sherry Caloia also provide input and support for the program.
“It’s saving the taxpayers a lot of money,” said Lynch, pointing to the avoided costs of keeping someone in jail or in prison ($32,000 a year in Colorado, according to the state), the unknown but considerable costs associated with crimes committed by drug addicts, and others.
As an example, if all 121 of the program’s participants over the past seven years had gone to prison, the costs to taxpayers would have been more than $3.8 million per year.
“It is a good program,” said Sightler. “I think we’ve got some amazing things happening,” although he conceded that the program lacks the kind of statistical record-keeping that would allow the public or other interested parties to see clearly and completely how well or poorly the program is doing.
Given that the program, by its very nature, deals with what Judge Lynch recently termed “high-risk, high-need individuals who are heavy users, deep into their addictions” on booze or drugs, Sightler said the 61 percent number is viewed as a positive result.
Throughout the U.S., according to the National Association of Drug Court Professionals (NADCP), the average success rate is 75 percent, meaning that percentage of participants “remain arrest free at least two years after leaving the program,” according to the NADCP website (nadcp.org).
Noting that the department has been without a “problem solving coordinator” (PSC) for some time, Sightler said, that lack has slowed down the department’s effort to keep track of their “clients” after those clients have graduated (or not) from the program.
“They do the statistics,” he said of the PSC position,
But the previous PSC was able to devote only half his time or less to the statistical work, Sightler continued, and a search is on now to find a replacement who can be “about three-quarters time” on the PSC beat.
That beat, Sightler said, encompasses such duties as “building community partnerships” that can lead to finding money for the Drug Court program, or forming a nonprofit group to seek grants to help fund the program, or creating an alumni association for graduates who can then provide mentoring help to those just entering the program.
“It gives them something positive that they can do, and gives support for someone who is new in their recovery,” Sightler said,
Sightler expressed the hope that his department will soon be staffed up enough to resume its data collection and statistical analysis of its successes and its failures.
“That’s where we’re looking to really get better,” he said, “in terms of understanding the impact” that the program has on local communities.