Seven years since the county’s last attempt to offer a specialized program for addicts was dismantled, Loudoun launched a new, improved drug court Wednesday, April 3.
A partnership between a broad spectrum of legal, human services, and law enforcement agencies, the drug court diverts people whose felony offenses are driven by their addiction, whether it be heroin or alcohol. Offenders get a chance to avoid jail time—and break the cycle of addiction and incarceration—by going instead to an intensive, outpatient treatment program.
From 2004 to 2012, Loudoun tried operating a drug court, but county supervisors closed the program when they decided they weren’t getting their money’s worth. Between the restrictive conditions on who could qualify for the program, and a stricter policy for kicking out offenders who fell off the wagon, relatively few people entered the program, and fewer successfully completed it. Only people who had violated probation on a non-violent drug offense—not including possession with intent to distribute—could be channeled into drug court.
“With all these eligibility criteria, we kept limiting the number of possible participants, so that was one problem: we had a very small pool of people that were potentially eligible to get into the program,” said Director of Community Corrections Jim Freeman. “For those that did get into the program, we were very strict. People got terminated for various reasons of noncompliance, and so the net result was, we wound up with less than 95 participants total, and only 26 graduates, over a six-year program.”
In 2016, as the opioid crisis raged, leaders in the county government and justice system started talks to reestablish a drug court based on the lessons learned from the last one. But those conversations were cut short when in 2017 the General Assembly stripped funding for a judgeship from Loudoun’s already overtaxed Circuit Court. Drug court, which includes weekly meetings with a judge, was deemed impossible with a shorthanded bench.
But in a dramatic turn of events, in May 2018, the General Assembly voted to restore funding for every unfunded judgeship in the commonwealth. That gave the county government, which had already been studying a drug court, the go-ahead. On Jan. 2, county supervisors voted unanimously to set up a drug court to accommodate up to 25 people in the first year, with the help of $373,000 in county funding, five new hires, and $500,000 in federal grant money.
And the people leading the new drug court—many of whom were involved in the last one—are optimistic. Now, there are more ways into the program, such as a plea deal, and the only major restriction on eligibility is a conviction for a violent felony.
“Other than that, if it’s determined that your offense or your criminal behavior is fueled by your drug or alcohol addiction, you could be eligible for drug court in Virginia,” Freeman said.
Drug court is no easy out for drug offenders. First, potential participants are screened for eligibility, including an assessment from the county Department of Mental Health, Substance Abuse, and Developmental Services.
“Basically, that needs assessment will kind of identify the strengths and the needs that are necessary in order to support a treatment plan for the individual, as well as develop an individual service plan to meet those strengths and the needs,” said Department of Mental Health Deputy Director Joseph Razzano.
If they are put into the program, they face an intensive, personalized treatment regime, including frequent random visits from law enforcement, drug tests, self-help groups, professional therapy sessions, job counseling, and a weekly trip to the courtroom.
“There’s accountability everywhere you turn,” Freeman said. “You can’t go through seven days without having to face the judge, talk to him, and say how come you were late for your Tuesday night group. You don’t get that with regular probation, and it definitely gets their attention.”
For that reason, in the past, some offenders who have been eligible for drug court have chosen jail time instead. But for those who stick the program out, the results are dramatic: According to the county government, only 19 percent of people who completed the county’s last drug court have since been arrested again, compared to a 49 percent recidivism rate for non-participants.
The program can also be friendly to the taxpayer. With the cost of imprisoning a person even without mental or substance abuse problems running into tens of thousands of dollars annually, if the new drug court sees significant participation, it is expected to cost far less per participant. In 2018, the state Supreme Court reported that the 50 drug court dockets in Virginia save on average $19,234 per adult. From July 2017 to June 2018, as the number of drug court participants across the state grew, the courts found that cost saving across Virginia grew by nearly 26 percent to $11.1 million.
Assistant Commonwealth’s Attorney Angela Vernail was involved in the previous drug court, and said that since that time, the treatments and mindset have evolved.
“We are giving folks as much opportunity and chance to be successful as possible,” Vernail said. “Before, we were much more stringent in looking for how long we would keep the person in the program if they weren’t showing much progress. I think this time, going in, we’re all sort of recognizing the fact that probably we’re going to have to be a lot more patient than we were the last time.”
She said the goal is to reduce that recidivism, or being arrested a second time, by addressing the reasons for that criminal behavior.
“A lot of these populations have a dual diagnosis, with also some mental health issues,” Vernail said. “And that’s one of the great things about the drug court, is it’s focused on the sobriety issue as well as any potential mental health issues.”
And she—and others—are optimistic about the new drug court, especially if more people can be funneled into the program.
“Having an expanded population this time, I think, will give us a lot more breadth, reach, and hopefully depth in trying to get folks successfully through the program,” Vernail said.
“From our perspective, it gives us an opportunity to provide that treatment for the individual back in the community, and will help them further reintegrate and become a more productive member of the community and have enhanced self-esteem in their own way,” Razzano said.
“When you open your door that wide, you make your net bigger, and you can accommodate more people, and that’s the whole idea,” Freeman said.
The drug court team includes representatives from the Commonwealth’s Attorney’s Office, Community Corrections, the county Department of Mental Health, Substance Abuse & Developmental Services, the county Department of Family Services, the Clerk of the Circuit Court, the Loudoun County Sheriff’s Office, the Leesburg Police Department, the Office of the Public Defender, the Virginia Department of Corrections Adult Probation and Parole, and Circuit Court Judges Douglas Fleming and Stephen Sincavage.
During the first Drug Court session Wednesday morning, the team was still working to determine whether one candidate would be eligible for the program. The former Leesburg resident has two pending cases. He was arrested on a possession charge from December and in January was charged with assault and two other possession charges. In Loudoun, his criminal history includes drug arrests in 2007 and 2009, the latter resulting in a two-year prison sentence, and a pair of probation violations. Because he was living in Martinsburg, WV, at the time of his arrest, he may not meet the program requirement of being a Loudoun resident. He told Judge Sincavage that he planned to move into a Loudoun-based sober living program.
Sincavage worked on the prior Drug Court program when he was serving as a prosecutor in the Commonwealth’s Attorney’s Office before taking the bench seat. He warned that the program is different that typical probation supervision.
“It is not one that you can just get by on,” he said, adding it would provide the foundation to help with a strong recovery from addiction.
“It’s really on you. It’s a way to change your life.”