Rio Blanco's drug court difficult but rewarding

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Chris Blank had it all -- a career in nursing, a wife and two children. But that life started to deteriorate when the 33-year-old Glenwood Springs man began taking methamphetamine a few years ago.

After initially being charged with nine felony counts, including a charge for attempted distribution of drugs, Blank most likely would be in a state prison today if not for the option to attend drug court in Glenwood.

But after two years of being held accountable to a judge and a probation officer along with intensive counseling, Blank considers himself lucky. He graduated from Glenwood's drug court Sept. 16 and no longer has to worry about the threat of heading to prison.

"I've gotten back what I lost, and it's even better," Blank said by phone last week. "It snowballs. I'm pretty excited for life now."

Officials from law enforcement agencies and the judicial system in Moffat County want to see a similar option for drug and alcohol offenders. Although still in the conversation stage, officials have identified challenges. One of the hurdles is funding for training and additional staff. Drug court clients generally are required to maintain high interaction with a probation officer, a person who regularly reports a client's progress to a judge.

Another barrier includes determining the scope of a drug court. Prosecutors and defense officials have to concur on how to administer the program. That might mean deciding on the number of drug and alcohol tests participants must take, the level of treatment that should be required and acceptable sanctions for drug court clients who stray from the program. Both sides also must agree on the level of charges that a client will face after successfully completing a program.

Rio Blanco's drug court, which occurs about twice a month at the courthouse in Meeker, serves people with drug and alcohol cases. But people also can qualify for the drug court process if charged with theft charges, for example, if a person were charged with writing fraudulent checks to pay for a drug habit, said Judge Dan Petre of the 9th Judicial District.

A reason to change

Raelene Clairmont cracked her knuckles partly out of habit and nervousness while waiting for her turn Friday afternoon in the Rio Blanco district courtroom. It was the first time the 27-year-old had seen a judge after being released from the county jail after a 56-day sentence stemming from drug charges. It also was Clairmont's first day of drug court, and the way she figured, the fastest way to be reunited with her 1-year-old daughter.

Instead of lawyers in the courtroom, Clairmont was flanked by her probation officer and counselor. Both had glowing things to report. Clairmont had complied with her counseling requirements and had enrolled herself in a 21-day drug rehabilitation treatment center, they said.

Heading to prison for her charges, Clairmont said before the hearing, would separate her from her daughter. If she were handed a one-year or longer prison sentence upon receiving a guilty conviction for drug charges, Clairmont would have to put her baby up for adoption.

It wasn't a chance she was willing to take.

Rio Blanco's drug court has been in operation since July, and all of the six clients who showed Friday are in the first or second of about four phases of treatment that can last years and cost clients thousands of dollars.

Meeker clients are expected to follow a strict regiment of drug testing and meetings with counselors and probation officer. Fail to take a urine analysis or admit to using drugs and a client can be immediately hauled off to county jail for a few days, according to a judge's determination.

Petre makes no allusions that the process is easy for clients. But, he said clients agree to the process and know that if they mess up, there will be punishments.

"It's hard, hard, hard," Petre said of clients' workload. "You have to really put in the effort. The idea is to provide fairly predictable sanctions."

Drug court dreams

District Judge Michael O'Hara already has stated he's open to setting aside time during his Moffat County court docket to handle drug court cases.

Moffat County is the only county in the 14th Judicial District -- also composed of Routt and Grand counties -- seeking a drug court.

Like many county jails, Moffat County Jail usually is riddled with offenders on parole of probation violations.

A better system is necessary to get people with drug charges out of jails and prisons and into treatment, said Lt. Dean Herndon, Administrator of the Moffat County Jail.

According to statistics from the Bureau of Justice Assistance, an arm of the government's Office of Justice Programs, drug courts across the nation face challenges. In a study of 212 adult drug courts around the nation, 59 percent said they were able to provide housing and transportation assistance to clients. Only 32 percent said they could provide child care.

"For clients to engage in treatment, physical or other barriers to treatment must be removed," according to the 1999 drug court report.

Currently, Moffat County officials are pressing for a local in-patient drug rehabilitation treatment center that may help provide more local treatment options.

One glitch Clairmont would like to see changed is coordination between Rio Blanco's drug court and its social services department.

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