This week, Virginia State Health Commissioner Dr. Marissa J. Levine declared the opioid addiction epidemic a public health emergency and issued an order allowing all Virginians to obtain Naloxone, which counteracts an opioid overdose. Last year, Rep. Barbara Comstock (R-VA-10) got together with Loudoun law enforcement to launch a Heroin Operations Team to battle the crisis. And in 2014, for the first time in Virginia, more people died from opioid overdoses than fatal car accidents.
In the face of a towering drug addiction crisis, leaders in Loudoun County government and courts are giving serious thought to bringing back Loudoun’s drug court.
From 2004 to 2012, some drug offenders got a chance to avoid jail time after violating probation by going instead to a special drug treatment court program. That diversion program was an intensive, outpatient process for treating addiction, with cooperation from county government, law enforcement, probation officers, the judiciary, the Commonwealth’s Attorney’s Office, social services, and mental health professionals. Offenders could choose intensive supervision and mandatory treatment instead of jail, and if they fell off the wagon again, they could wind up back behind bars.
But in 2012, supervisors decided they weren’t getting their money’s worth and pulled funding for the program. A third-party cost-benefit analysis of the program had trouble coming up with definitive numbers, but noted the county paid more per participant than other jurisdictions running similar programs. Tight restrictions on who was eligible for the drug court meant that comparatively few people went through the program—20 in a year at most.
“There’s an efficiency that you get out of numbers, so I think that’s probably where some of the costs were,” said Commonwealth’s Attorney Jim Plowman, one of the leading critics of the previous drug court when it was shut down. “You didn’t have that economy of scale.”
For one thing, offenders who sold drugs were excluded—but Loudoun Circuit Court Presiding Judge Burke F. McCahill said most drug addicts sell some amount to support their habits.
And County Chairwoman Phyllis J. Randall (D-At Large)—a career mental health and substance abuse professional who chairs the State Board of Corrections—said she, too, would have voted down the previous drug court program, which predated her tenure on the Board of Supervisors.
“Somebody would get arrested, go to jail, get out, go on probation and violate, and sometimes do that twice before they were sentenced to drug court,” Randall said. “Well, the problem is, it’s supposed to be a deterrent to jail. Once a person’s been to jail once or twice, they realize they can handle jail.”
By the time a person wound up in Loudoun’s drug court, Randall said, they were deep in the grip of addiction.
“I think one of the most important factors in the drug court issue would be to get to people on the front side of the problem, when they’re more amenable to changing their behavior,” Sheriff Mike Chapman said. He said drug court “doesn’t work all the time, but nothing seems to work all the time. We have to find the right fit.”
“Drug court’s hard,” Plowman said. “It’s not an easy program, and the court is managing your life week to week, and some people aren’t ready. You have to get to a certain place in your life where you say, ‘I’m done with drugs, I want to turn my life around, I want to change things.’”
But drug court is an expensive program, and it requires unanimous buy-in from all the agencies that take part. But Randall says it’s cheaper than jailing addicts.
“When we put someone in jail, and we don’t treat them, and then we let them out, one of two things will likely happen,” Randall said. “One, they’ll use again and then die, because their tolerance has decreased while they were in jail. Or two, their addiction will get much worse.”
And she said the cost of jailing a person—at least $30,000 a year—doesn’t capture the total cost to the community.
“It’s not just the cost of incarceration—it’s the cost of a person who is not working,” Randall said. “They’re not paying taxes, usually there are children who are left behind and those children are now on the system, or a parent is collecting Temporary Assistance for Needy Families.”
But Plowman said it’s not a simple case of drug court or jail.
“The reality is, people that get simple possession charges are not serving a year or two in jail anyway,” Plowman said. “They’re getting probation, and if they violate, they may get 30 or 60 or 90 days revoked here or there, but they’re not serving prison sentences. … People who are serving long, long prison sentences, you’re not going to find a lot of them in there on simple possession charges.”
But Plowman wouldn’t say that he opposes a drug court—only that there are a lot of pieces to work out, from deciding who can enter, to how to run the court, to paying for it.
Chapman said the sheriff’s part of the program was funded in the past with a continuing grant, and the department would look for more grant funding if the drug court is resurrected. But he said he would support the drug court either way. Anything that can get people off drugs, he said, is a positive step.
“It’s certainly worth trying again, and I would be committed to making it work,” Chapman said.
“Most counties at this point have a drug court,” Randall said. “Many have other specialized courts also. It would behoove us to get on this issue as fast as possible, if we’re going to save money and save lives.”
Judge McCahill, who will retire at the end of the year, told the board’s finance committee that the judiciary would likely support a drug court if a working model can be devised “because we see every day the need for this sort of thing.”
“When you, as legislators, have to decide, ‘can we justify this to our constituents that we serve,’ and you say there are only 11 or 14 people, it’s an easy answer to say no,” McCahill said. “It’s a completely different criteria when you’re looking in the faces of parents who are saying, ‘you saved my son, he was a heroin addict and thank you, I now have a son that I never had before.’
“That’s what I heard—but I didn’t have to deal with the budget constraints.”