Supervisors See Merits in Drug Court if State Funding is Restored

The message from Loudoun leaders to the state seems clear: we’re ready when you are for a new drug court.

From 2004 to 2012, some Loudoun drug offenders got a chance to avoid jail time after violating probation by going instead to an intensive outpatient treatment program. It took work from county government, law enforcement, probation officers, the judiciary, the Commonwealth’s Attorney’s Office, social services, and mental health professionals. Offenders would be under intensive supervision and mandatory treatment, and if they fell off the wagon, they could wind up back in jail.

But Loudoun’s drug court could handle relatively few participants, and in 2012, the Board of Supervisors decided it wasn’t getting its money worth and closed the program.

Late last year, supervisors and other county leaders started to warm to the idea of reestablishing the drug court program, but the General Assembly cut that short by stripping funding for one of four judgeships from Loudoun’s already overtaxed Circuit Court. Drug court is very intensive for judges, and the judiciary has indicated that with only three judges, they just don’t have the time.

“I think the discussion at this point for us is largely more academic, because of what the General Assembly did to our judicial system by taking away a judge,” said Supervisors Matthew F. Letourneau (R-Dulles), who chairs the board’s Finance and Government Operations Committee.

But county leaders are looking at what a new drug court would look like if the General Assembly fills the needed judgeship.

“The more tools we have in our arsenal to treat addicted offenders, the better off we will be,” said Director of Community Corrections Jim Freeman. “Not all offenders respond to the same kind of treatment the same way. Drug court would be … the one true intensive outpatient treatment program that we could offer.”

Freeman said one of the problems with the previous drug court was its overly restrictive criteria for entry, which kept participation numbers low. He worked with Commonwealth’s Attorney Jim Plowman to develop an alternate set of criteria, and after a three-month study of potential candidates, estimated a new drug court could have as many as 400 participants a year. The previous Loudoun drug court never had more than 20 in a year.

He also noted “eye-opening” statistics from the previous drug court—only 19 percent of drug court graduates were arrested again. People who dropped out of drug court were arrested again 64 percent of the time, and a control group of people who never entered drug court were arrested again 41 percent of the time. He said 75 percent of pretrial violations for felony offenders are drug cases.

“There’s a clearly demonstrated need for addressing this behavior and this illness,” Freeman said.

County Chairwoman Phyllis J. Randall (D-At Large) said any new drug court should also treat alcohol addiction. Randall, who in her career worked with substance abuse among inmates, has said before that given the previous drug court’s performance, she too would have voted to disband in 2012.

“But having realized we didn’t use alcohol, I may not have said disband,” Randall said. “I may have said, add the drug that is most used in this country, in this commonwealth, and this county, and that is the drug of alcohol.”

A successful drug court, she said, can save more than just the cost of incarceration.

“We forget that there are also these other numbers, which is, that person’s in the community, that person’s making income, that person’s paying for their own children, their children are not in the system,” Randall said. “There’s all these other benefits that actually are cost-saving benefits.”

Letourneau said the county would continue to push to restore a fourth judgeship “so we can have this be more than an academic exercise.”

Randall recently sent a letter to Governor Terry McAuliffe, pointing out his statements in support of drug courts across the state—and that the 2017 General Assembly removed funding for one judge, “thus eliminating any options for a Drug [Court] in Loudoun.” She cited statistics showing that a visiting judge was needed for 44 percent of the court docket in 2016, even with four judges.

“Governor, one could argue Loudoun’s growing population actually requires five Circuit Court judges,” Randall wrote. “However, we are now down to just three judges. As you prepare to serve your final six months as Governor of the Commonwealth of Virginia, I implore you to speak with leaders and members of the Judicial Committee of the State Senate to restore this judicial vacancy in the 2018 budget.”

According to the state Supreme Court, there are currently 29 drug courts in operation in Virginia.

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