‘What we're doing isn't working’

Culpeper County set to create drug court 

By Randy Rieland 

Andrew Lawson runs down a list of Culpeper County statistics. 

“From 2016 to June 2019: 39 fatal overdoses, 199 heroin overdoses,” he says, then moves on to overdose revival efforts from 2015 to 2018. “240 units of Narcan administered by our paid EMS crews. And they spent more than 279 hours responding to overdoses.”

Finally, he shares data from Culpeper Human Services:  Of the 41 children placed in foster care this year, almost half were because their parents were substance abusers.

It’s a grim record that strengthens his resolve to try something different when it comes to how opioid users are treated in the criminal justice system. “What we’re doing isn’t working,” he said. “We’re prosecuting a huge number of people because they have an addiction.”

Lawson, director of the county’s Department of Criminal Justice Services, has become an advocate of establishing a drug treatment court. He has been joined by Paul Walther, Culpeper’s commonwealth’s attorney.

“I’ve seen drug courts come and go,” he said. “But after Andrew and I talked about it, I came to the conclusion that we had to do something.”

Last summer, the Culpeper Board of Supervisors voted to allow them to explore a drug court option, and last month, the Virginia Supreme Court gave them the go-ahead. 

Drug courts give nonviolent offenders the opportunity to avoid jail by entering into a court-supervised program that includes treatment, but also frequent testing and sanctions if a person doesn’t comply with requirements. Proponents point out that this approach costs less than incarcerating someone, reduces jail overcrowding and provides closely monitored treatment. They also say it lowers recidivism. A national meta-analysis of relevant studies found that recidivism rates were 8 to 14 percent lower for drug court participants than for offenders who didn’t go through a program. 

But evaluating the true effectiveness of drug courts is complicated, says Lauren Cummings, executive director of the Northern Shenandoah Valley Substance Abuse Coalition. She played a lead role in establishing the Northwestern Regional Adult Treatment Court (NRATC) three years ago. It serves the city of Winchester and Frederick and Clarke counties. 

“Some people just think someone will go to drug court and they’ll be fixed,” she said. “But it’s not that easy. People in drug court … their normal is not our normal.”

A healthy percentage don’t make it all the way through. Of the 61 NRATC participants, 31 are still in the program and another 11 have successfully completed it. But 17 have been sent to jail for failing to meet sobriety and participation requirements, such as weekly court appearances and meetings with a probation officer. Two more died, one from an overdose. 

Cummings doesn’t view ejection from the program as a failure. Many drug court participants have never received treatment, she said, and more of those who relapse reach out for help now. There’s no one pathway to recovery, she says, and it’s important to focus on specific accomplishments, such as whether a person has been able to find housing or stay employed or get their kids back from foster care.  

“For some of our clients, drug court is the first program they have ever successfully completed,” she said, “and therefore celebrating successes is so important.”

Completing the program, which includes four phases of supervision and treatment, can take a year or longer. According to Cummings, the average cost per person is $36 a day, compared to $81 a day for someone incarcerated in the Rappahannock Shenandoah Warren Regional Jail in Front Royal. “The reality is we can’t afford not to treat them,” she said.

But a drug court in Culpeper County is still probably two years away. Walther said the next step is training at the National Drug Court Institute next year, which will help shape how county officials decide to structure the program. “You can make it very strict. You can design it so people are drug-tested every day if you want,” he said. “Or you can design it where you give people more chances.” 

For Lawson, a key to a drug court’s effectiveness is a clear understanding of the power of addiction. “For someone to just stop using is extremely difficult. People are still going to have issues,” he said. “You have to expect failures to a certain extent. If the attitude is that a person is going to come in and they’re never going to use again, that’s not going to work.”

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