County drug court eyes early 2018 start

A photo illustration of heroin use.
A photo illustration of heroin use. psheehan@centredaily.com

The long-awaited Centre County drug court is on track to open early next year, and the judges of Centre County couldn’t be more pleased.

Speaking to a gathering of county business leaders and attorneys, the judges spoke at length about the court, which had been approved by county commissioners late last year. The court itself had been in discussions for years prior to that, and formed the basis for the county DUI court, which launched in 2009.

“The drug court is something where we can get people who are addicted and who have committed crimes to get some treatment,” Judge Pamela Ruest said.

While the idea for a drug court was the precursor to the DUI court, the judges likened the operation of both courts to each other. Judge Jonathan Grine heads the DUI court, and said when individuals are sentenced, sometimes 30 at a time, they often go off and aren’t seen again by a judge until they violate their probation or parole.

Grine said the DUI court brings a “very intensive team approach” to its operation, working with people for 18 months after sentencing. These individuals meet with the judges and staff twice a week, working toward kicking their habits.

The reason for the year-and-a-half length of time, he said, was simply “addiction.” Those in the program will take steps forward and steps back.

“That was one of the things that really kind of shocked me personally,” he said. “You would have people who were doing excellently a year into the program. They were coming up on the last six months, doing great, and they would test positive for cocaine.”

Those who relapse are sanctioned, he said, but are provided with health services.

“We’re not looking to punish the relapses,” he said. “What we’re trying to do is help them.”

It’s this very sense of helping those who slip that has lead to the development of the drug court. Ruest said the court will not only be committed to treatment, but to lifestyle changes as well.

“So many times we have people we see come in, and they’re addicted,” she said. “So we get them into a treatment program. They’re in for maybe 30 days, get out, and in five days they’re using again.”

There’s no way to hold repeat offenders accountable, she said, so the court will operate much as the DUI court does — and the 18-month program to get individuals into treatment and provide them that accountability. They will be provided with incentives and sanctions, and will have to report back on a regular basis.

“Hopefully by the time they’re finished with the 18 months — some might take longer — we’ll get them jobs and get them set for life,” she said. “When they finish the program, they’re not going to go back to using heroin or any of the other things they’ve used.”

The drug court was modeled after other successful drug courts in the state, Ruest said, but with tweaks for what works best for Centre County. The hope is to have 25 people in the program at the beginning, with more to come in the future.

She said they would also like community members to get involved in the court to help program attendees with job placement. Grine pointed out that the prison already has a work-release program with employers willing to help.

This work program is already in use at the DUI court, he said, and would be an easy transition to the drug court.

“What you find is if you have a goal and are employed, it’s a lot better than sitting at home ... wanting to drink,” he said.

There’s certainly no shortage of drug-related charges in Centre County — according to court documents, there were more than 70 drug-related charges since June 1. The largest number — more than 30 — was possession of drug paraphernalia, with the broader charge of possession of a controlled substance slightly outnumbering the simple possession of a small amount of marijuana.

Serious felony charges, such as possession with intent to deliver, numbered in the single digits during this time frame.

The State College borough changed the possession of a small amount of marijuana from a misdemeanor to a summary offense almost a year ago, but outside the borough limits, it remains a criminal charge.

“I think it’s a very current approach, a forward approach,” Grine said of the drug court. “I think the way that we’ve handled drug cases in the past, especially with mandatory minimums ... I don’t think that was working.

“I think it’s more of a health crisis,” he said. “I think the court’s come around to that.”

President Judge Thomas Kistler took the time to speak about the drug situation in the county as well, saying that the efforts to stem the flow of illicit substances is ongoing.

Kistler explained that working beyond catching users on the street is the job of the state Attorney General’s Office and the task forces they form. These forces, such as the Centre County Drug Task Force, then work with local police.

“A week doesn’t go by when we’re not brought a confidential search warrant and they’re trying to wiretap somebody,” Kistler said. “They’re very active at it.”

The problem, he said, is at this point, heroin is cheaper than beer for someone searching for a buzz. And in the prisons, due to the concealable nature of substances like Suboxone, it’s a mess.

Heroin is a huge game-changer, he added, saying when someone comes in for a DUI or marijuana, the excuses are common.

“But when I have someone with heroin, they’re saying, “Please, please, put me in jail. Please get me away from this drug, I can’t control my life,’ ” Kistler said.

But for the time being, he said, the county is doing a good job at identifying addicts and getting them treated.

Jeremy Hartley: 814-231-4616, @JJHartleyNews