Drug court debated

Mindset changes needed to help drug users, some say

The formation of a drug court in Moffat County will require a shift in how people think about drug offenders, some court officials said.

It also will take a concerted effort to try to rehabilitate drug users and should involve users who would rather get clean than face jail time, others said in a meeting Tuesday called to discuss the feasibility of a county drug court.

"There has to be a commitment by the system that treatment is our goal, and recovery is (drug offenders') goal," Chief District Judge Michael O'Hara said.

Some Moffat County Court officials and members of the anti-drug group Communities Overcoming Methamphetamine Abuse are pressing for the installation of a drug court.

Drug courts generally are designed to create a streamlined process to get drug offenders into counseling and treatment facilities in lieu of jail or prison sentences. Court cases can be heard by a judge about one day a week or more depending on the county's number of cases. Moffat County is the only county in the 14th Judicial District -- also composed of Routt and Grand counties -- seeking a drug court.

Non-violent drug or alcohol offenders who aren't relentless repeat offenders can apply for the program. But offenders can choose whether to subscribe to the program instead of taking their case to trial. Enrollment in a drug court generally requires that an offender accept some sort of plea agreement.

Each county can create its own drug court within those general parameters. Moffat County court officials presented an overview of a drug court proposal on Tuesday, but both sides ultimately have to agree on a number of issues to make a drug court successful.

Defense attorney Sheryl Uhlmann said her biggest concern is ensuring her clients' rights are maintained. For example, accepting a plea of a felony charge to enter into the drug court program could be a step backward for some offenders. Uhlmann also is concerned that offenders might be unfairly punished by inadvertently failing to meet the conditions of enrolling in a drug court. That might happen if offenders are punished for not entering a treatment program though they don't have enough money to do so.

"I'm not convinced that these issues need to be addressed by drug courts," Uhlmann said. "I have clients who want treatment now, and they can't afford it. I don't see how this proposal answers that."

There isn't an in-patient treatment center in Northwest Colorado. Craig Mental Health offers out-patient treatment, including support groups and counseling.

But drug offenders often show desire to enter programs on the Western Slope, in Glenwood Springs and in Grand Junction, officials said. However, some of those programs cost thousands of dollars or have lengthy waiting lists.

A feasibility study is in the works to determine whether The Memorial Hospital can be converted into an in-patient treatment center. The hospital is planning to build a new facility.

Some state funds are available to help drug offenders get into treatment centers, but that money is limited.

Also, starting a drug court will require more funds for probation, said Annette Norton, director of the department.

Installation of a drug court requires daily supervision of offenders, something that isn't possible considering the department's current level of staffing, Norton said.

Judge O'Hara said changes in the manner in which people are charged for drug crimes might work against the local fervor for a drug court. Charges for possession of a small amount of methamphetamine have increased from petty offenses to felony charges.

But the appeal for a drug court comes from its immediate action. Offenders can rack up multiple charges before their first case goes to trial. People can bond out of jail, but may rack up more charges while waiting to be seen by a judge. Bond violations run a mandatory year sentence in prison.

By all accounts, recidivism rates of meth users are high, considering the drug's highly addictive qualities.

"One thing that is missing is significant treatment," O'Hara said about the need for treatment options for drug users. "We're going to need buy-in and financial support (for a drug court). It would be great to have more successes."

Amy Hamilton can be reached at 824-7031 or ahamilton@craigdailypress.com

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