Benton County adult drug court celebrates 10 years

Kristin M. Kraemer, Tri-City HeraldAugust 24, 2013 

Addicts in need of treatment and craving an alternative to being locked up for their drug-fueled crimes were given another chance when a Benton County pilot program started up in January 2003.

Adult drug court tempted people with the idea of having their felony charges dismissed -- but it wouldn't be easy.

Participants were told they had to become clean and sober and stay that way for at least six months, while living by the rigorous rules of program coordinators. The goal: to solve the underlying problems and stop recycling people through the criminal courts.

The program has had its share of setbacks, just like some participants who've struggled to maintain their new lifestyle. But it's also had its triumphs, including expansion into Franklin County and survival of a decadelong run.

That's a milestone worthy of a community celebration, officials say, given that 168 people have avoided convictions by facing their demons, taking responsibility and accepting the need for a change by graduating from adult drug court.

"We've reached the 10 years. I'm very proud of that, that we've been able to give these services to the public for 10 years," said Administrator Pat Austin with Benton-Franklin Superior Court. "And we've been told by some of the national trainers that we have one of the most successful (drug courts) in the nation, so that's something to be very proud of."

The anniversary event is scheduled for 4 p.m. Aug. 28 in Courtroom B at the Benton County Justice Center, 7122 W. Okanogan Place, Kennewick.

It will include reflections from about a dozen graduates and community leaders who've supported the program, along with Superior Court Judge Carrie Runge and retired Judge Dennis Yule, who presided over drug court proceedings until his 2009 retirement.

"I'd say it's a struggle for most of the participants because it's not easy and it's a lot of work. It's asking a lot of the participants," Runge said. She started with the program as Benton County's chief deputy prosecutor before her appointment to the bench in December 2003.

"(Participants) have to call in daily to see if their number is called for a (urinalysis), have to get to mandatory support meetings that are set out for them, have to go to treatment and have to come to drug court," she added. "But maybe it's to the point in their lives where they realize it's not just about a felony conviction. It's about, I want to get my life back on track and be a productive member of society and repair these broken relationships."

A bicounty juvenile drug court started in August 2002 with federal money and continues to help substance-abusing teens between 14 and 17.

The adult drug court can handle only 30 people at one time -- 24 from Benton County and six from Franklin County -- but has a waiting list with at least a dozen names.

Since it is an optional program, it is looked at critically by county commissioners, so there's always concern whether drug court will survive another year, Runge said. Drug court no longer receives any federal grants to support the program.

Each county allots a portion of money in its budget and the nonprofit Circle of Hope Foundation gives a minimal amount, but the largest percentage of revenue is the $2,000 participant fee which must be paid in full before graduation, she explained. That helps cover the salaries of two staff members and supplies.

Benton County, which uses a biennial budget, will spend $267,000 on adult drug court for the two-year period of 2013-14.

Franklin County works off an annual budget, so it has not yet established its expenses for 2014. The county budgeted $21,577 for 2013, and officials say records don't show that any expenditures have been made this year so far. The 2012 budget was for $21,449, and $10,748 of that was spent.

Runge knows the program has its critics, that some would rather worry about "the nuts and bolts of the criminal justice system" when the counties don't necessarily have enough time or resources for drug court.

But she argues it not only helps the participant to clean up, but prepares them for post-graduation by helping understand they must continue with support groups, communicate with their sponsor, change their circle of friends and avoid their addictive substances.

It's those who think they can have just one sip of beer or return to their old life who end up in trouble and possibly face new criminal charges.

"It is a disease and it's with you all your life," Runge said. "You don't have a quick and easy fix, and have to stay on top of it all the time."

Their addictions run the gamut with alcohol, marijuana, prescription drugs, cocaine, heroin and methamphetamine. "Nothing in particular and everything in general," Runge said, noting that some participants have multiple addictions.

Prosecutors are considered the program's gatekeepers, doing the initial screening of candidates and deciding who's appropriate before referring cases to drug court. People charged with drug dealing or manufacturing are considered on a case-by-case basis, while those with a record of violent felonies or sexual offenses are not accepted.

Then they undergo a treatment assessment and are interviewed separately by case manager Marshall Pickett and the team's defense attorney to determine if the candidate has a serious drug problem and whether drug court can help fix it.

The applicant's criminal case is suspended once they're accepted into the program, but they can opt out within the first two weeks and resume criminal proceedings.

Each participant must attend weekly drug court with the six-member team and pass through four phases that take an average 16 to 18 months to successfully complete. In addition to treatment, random drug tests and 12-step programs, the program also covers restructuring, life skills, independence and mastery.

They are subjected to unscheduled home visits throughout the program, and their agreements can be terminated if they have repeat violations.

If they eventually fulfill the requirements, including six months of sobriety, the participant graduates and finds the charge dismissed.

For Pickett, what makes him the proudest is those who have reconnected with their families.

"So many bridges are burned with people out violating, and rekindling the family relations is one of my most heartfelt achievements of what these guys get to do," he told the Herald.

"Ultimately we want them alcohol- and drug-free and law-abiding," Pickett said, but the emotional focus for him is seeing mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters and children reunited.

Deputy Prosecutor Megan Killgore has been with drug court for five years and recognizes it is a massive commitment for participants given the requirements.

"Some people are at the point where they recognize they just have to change, they can't keep living the way they are living. Life has become unbearable and unmanageable from their use," she said. "Other people start off with the idea that they're going to do it to avoid a felony, and as they go through they start to realize, gosh how much better their life is now that they're not using. It kicks in part way through, that wow, I really do want to change."

And some people never get it, she adds, saying it is impossible to predict who is being sincere or who actually isn't willing to do anything about their addiction. Maybe drug court will work for them and maybe it won't, but it's an alternative.

"It's not to replace the criminal justice system, but ideally this is a way for people who commit crimes because of their addiction to figure out how to live clean and sober, so we're removing the root cause of why they're committing this crime in the first place," Killgore said. "I wish it worked every time, I wish it was a perfect system, but it's not any time you're dealing with personal choice."

-- Kristin M. Kraemer: 582-1531; kkraemer@tricityherald.com; Twitter: @KristinMKraemer

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