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Columbia County judge pleads case for drug treatment court

October 21, 2016

A Columbia County Circuit Court judge on Wednesday characterized the County Board’s decision on creating a drug court as a matter of life or death.

Judge Todd Hepler told the supervisors that their approval of a resolution to accept a $204,124 state grant to start a drug treatment court, and keep the county’s existing treatment court for defendants charged with their third operating while intoxicated offense, is just one step -- but an important one -- toward fighting the scourge of substance addiction.

Treatment court won’t “magically cure all of those with drug addictions or cure all of those with drug problems in Columbia County,” Hepler said.

But an effort to incorporate accountability, rewards, consequences and treatment of addiction will go a long way to turning the tide, he said.

With no discussion, the County Board voted to accept the grant.

There was, however, one “nay” vote.

Supervisor Jim Foley of the town of Leeds cast the dissenting vote, as he has when the treatment court resolution was discussed among members of the County Board’s Executive and Finance committees.

Foley has expressed concern that, if the funding should dry up, then the county -- which already doesn’t have enough property tax revenue to operate -- would have to assume the cost of the program.

Hepler pointed out, however, that treatment court, in the long run, saves money.

For every dollar invested in a drug court, he said, taxpayers can save as much as $3.36 in avoided criminal justice costs alone. With other offsets -- such as a reduction in crime victimization and health care service use -- the savings can go as high as $27 for every dollar invested, he said.

Drug court also restores families that are broken up when a parent is hospitalized or jailed for reasons related to addiction to opium-based drugs like heroin, Hepler said.

“[Addiction] costs the county money,” he said. “It costs parents their children. Everybody loses.”

A handout that Hepler gave to each County Board member included an outline of how treatment court is likely to operate in Columbia County:

In the first of three phases, the participant will undergo random drug testing two to three times a week, attend weekly treatment court sessions, participate in weekly meetings with probation officers and the treatment court coordinator (to be hired later), participate in individualized case management to address underlying issues (such as employment and financial responsibility) and perform required community service.In the second phase, random drug tests will occur twice a week, and participants will be required to attend treatment court sessions, and meet with probation and the coordinator, every other week. Other requirements, including case management and community service, would continue.The third phase would include drug testing once or twice a week, and treatment court sessions and probation-coordinator meetings every other month.To graduate, a participant must be sober for 150 days, must have paid all the fines and costs that he or she owes, must be in compliance with the individualized care plan (including education and budget goals), must demonstrate stable housing and employment and must have no pending criminal charges.

Hepler has said that the goal is to get the treatment court operating by mid-year 2017.

The resolution accepting the grant also included approval to hire a treatment court coordinator.

It also specified that the county’s share of the costs for the matching grants, amounting to $68,042, would include in-kind matches of $19,900 for the OWI court and $19,440 for the drug court (mostly office space), plus cash matches of $14,473 for the OWI court and $14,299 for the drug court. The cash will come from transfers from the Health and Human Services fund account.