Judiciary, doctors discuss drug court’s merits

November 10, 2018 GMT

HUNTINGTON — Cabell County’s drug court — the most extensive in West Virginia and likely one of the largest in the country — was the topic of discussion Thursday night for the sixth annual Paul Ambrose Health Policy Forum at Marshall University’s Joan C. Edwards School of Medicine.

Around 100 medical students and residents sat in for the discussion on how drug court operates, its challenges and its benefits in alleviating the legal burdens spurred by the opioid epidemic.

Panelists were Cabell Circuit Court Judge Greg Howard, Cabell County assistant prosecuting attorney Lauren Plymale and Dr. Zachary Hansen, a family medicine physician with Valley Health Systems and medical director at PROACT in Huntington.

Drug court is an intensive addiction treatment program used as an alternative to jail time for those who qualify and are willing to participate in the program.

Cabell County’s drug court predates the opioid epidemic by around 15 years, and since the early 2000s it has seen around 1,000 participants come through. The program currently has 48 participants at different stages of readiness — progressing through three gradually less-strict phases before being discharged to aftercare.

Candidates are vetted by prosecutors and probation officers and are disqualified to jail if they have any violent or extensive criminal history. Drug court is for local, low-level offenders with solvable addiction problems, Howard explained.

“Typically we’re looking at people who live here in the community and have some kind of

an addiction problem,” Howard said. “A lot of people were placed on these narcotics legally or by accident.”

Similar in principle to probation, drug court is more intensive with more one-on-one meetings, group therapy and multiple drug screenings month after month toward completion. Participants must regularly appear before Howard for an assessment, which can result positively or negatively given their progression.

“We get to know this person, what struggles they have and what we can do to benefit them, but not doing it for them,” Plymale said. “They have to want to do it. If they’re not willing to put the time in, they’re not going to be successful.”

Some may be referred to PROACT for medical treatment, and Hansen said he hopes the new facility can begin to see more referrals from drug court.

“Drug court giving that sort of extra level of motivation and accountability really brings a lot to the table, and it helps them get over that hump and make right decisions,” he added.

Aside from being a more egalitarian option for low-level offenders, Howard added that drug court saves Cabell County taxpayers $50 per person, per day for each participant who would otherwise be lodged in Western Regional Jail, which currently houses more than 800 people in the 590-person facility.

His time and the prosecutors’ time in drug court is donated as well.

“This is one of the joys I get from my job because I see people change and see people go from pulling from society to actually benefiting,” Ply male said.