Centre County drug court is up and running

After about two years of preparation, Centre County officials announced on Thursday that the drug court program is officially operating.

The drug court is a specialized program that takes a public health approach to dealing with addicted offenders who are of the greatest risk to themselves and the community. The court closely monitors participants throughout the intensive program in an effort to break the cycle of addiction and crime.

“It’s about saving lives and changing lives and reducing the recidivism that we see day to day,” Centre County District Attorney Bernie Cantorna said. “If we don’t do that, Centre County could easily become a county that is in crisis like others.”

The program is staffed to accommodate 25 participants who are referred or identified by officials within the criminal justice system. Participation in the program offsets any intermediate punishment sentence that a non-violent offender might be facing. There are several felony offenses that would render an offender ineligible, including homicide, violent crimes and sexual assaults.

After being accepted into the 18-month, four-phase program, the participant will begin with a 30-day, in-home detention period followed by intensive supervision by a case manager and probation officer. The participant will attend recovery support meetings, receive counseling and submit a drug test three times per week.

A relapse does not automatically disqualify a participant from the program and the assigned treatment team treats violations on a case-by-case basis, Gene Lauri, Criminal Justice Planning director, said.

“This is meant to be a non-adversarial court program,” Lauri said. “There is a strong expectation that a participant will show up for meetings and counseling, but the program is based on the recognition that addiction is a disease.”

Nationwide, there are just more than 3,000 drug courts that have demonstrated the ability to reduce the recidivism rate by up to 26 percent, which could result in public savings of up to about $6,700 per participant, according to the National Institute for Justice.

In October, Center County received a federal grant of $400,000 to start the drug court, and according to Centre County Commissioner Michael Pipe, the county will assess the taxpayer savings as the program progresses.

While the fiscal implications of the program were a priority for county officials, Cathy Arbogast, program administrator for Centre County Drug and Alcohol, said the drug court equips the county with a valuable tool to deal with addiction.

“This is an incredible opportunity to work with individuals who are managing the chronic disease of addiction,” Arbogast said. “It provides one more option to meet the unique needs of individuals who are coming to us and need assistance.”

The drug court staff is reviewing referrals and expects to have the first participants in the coming weeks.

Leon Valsechi: 814-231-4631, @leon_valsechi