Monday, January 11, 2010

Advocates Rue Loss of Drug Court

Advocates rue loss of drug court

Judge James DrewMASON CITY — People connected with the Community Drug Court in Mason City say the state is being penny-wise and pound foolish in cutting the program in light of the state’s economic problems.

“What’s frustrating is that I understand that sometimes across-the-board cuts just have to be done,” said Judge James Drew. “There is no other way to do something quickly.

“But I don’t think there is any question that drug court was saving the state of Iowa money, and more importantly it was literally saving lives,” Drew said.

Mason City’s Community Drug Court was cut effective Jan. 1, a victim of dwindling state funds, according to Linda Murken, director of the Second Judicial District Department of Correctional Services.

“What we had to look at quite frankly was saving money and looking at the number of people programs serve,” Murken said.

About $1.1 million was cut from the district’s budget through unpaid furloughs, holding positions vacant and some reduction in treatment programs.

The Community Drug Court provided intensive supervision, accountability and treatment to drug offenders who may be in their homes, at treatment centers or in minimum security facilities such as Beje Clark Residential Facility in Mason City.

The average offender sentenced to drug court was in the program 18 months.

A participant agreed to complete drug treatment, maintain employment and a stable home environment and remain drug and alcohol free.

Community panels made up of North Iowa residents monitored the participants progress, providing advice and resources when needed.

“We very successfully worked with higher risk offenders whose criminal behavior stemmed from abuse of substances,” Murken said.

“The program was targeted toward treatment and holding them accountable with intensive supervision and intensive treatment.”

The community panels held “people’s feet to the fire,” he said.

Drug court in Mason City was serving about 25 people when the program was cut.

Murken said the people who were in the program as of Dec. 31 will continue to receive supervision and substance abuse treatment services.

“We will do our best for them and by them,” Murken said.

But the community panels which provided support and accountability are gone.

Lionel Foster was been a drug court panel member since the program started in Mason City nearly nine years ago.

Foster said the program costs the state about $100,000 but it saves between $30,000 and $35,000 per participant by keeping them out of prison.

“It wasn’t a very expensive program compared to what we were saving the state by keeping the individuals out of jail,” Foster said.

Drug court was a last stop for high-risk offenders who would normally be on their way to prison.

“The human side of it is that those individuals decided that our program helped them to get clean and become productive citizens, Foster said.

“Just sticking people in prison or in an institution really doesn’t help them in the end unless they are really bad people.”

Murken said about 50 percent of the people who entered drug court completed the program.

“It was successful because it was an alternative to simply sending people with addiction issues to prison,” said Judge Drew. “It was an intensive probation program with a treatment component to it.

“You know, not everybody got through it, but a lot of people did. These people are now leading productive lives as tax-paying citizens,” Drew said.

Jay Hansen, director of Prairie Ridge Addiction Treatment Services in Mason City, said it is unfortunate that the program was cut.

“This provided a forum for both the criminal justice system and the treatment community and community panel members to give people who were interested in recovery some chances to help them avoid jail,” Hansen said.

Murken said if and when the situation improves, she hopes the department can consider reinstating the drug court.

“When it does happen I really hope that we do look at the programming that we suspended or stopped doing, what things had the most promise, the best outcome and then look at those and do some prioritizing.”

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