Centre County considers creating drug court

Centre County knows it has a drug problem. Now it is hoping to find solutions.

“What we are discussing now is a juvenile treatment court,” said county Judge Bradley P. Lunsford. “What we are seeing is an alarming number of juveniles being placed in facilities outside of the county. We’re looking at ways we may be able to prevent that.”

The idea of a drug court has been talked about for years. The concept was the precursor to Centre County’s DUI court, which has been up and running for about five years.

“When we set out to do DUI court, what we were actually looking for at that time was whether Centre County would benefit from a drug court,” said Lunsford. At the time, the decision was made to focus on driving under the influence. Now, as the DUI court is well-established, with a waiting list for participants, drug problems are coming to the forefront again.

“I do see more,” said Lunsford. “What I see mostly is an abuse of prescription medications and the use of marijuana. I have not seen any heroin addiction yet in juveniles, but knowing what I know about the community, it wouldn’t surprise me.”

Several significant heroin trafficking arrests were made in Centre County in February. A two-year state Attorney General’s Bureau of Narcotics Investigation arrest netted eight alleged dealers, and a routine traffic stop found a Johnstown couple with 3,000 bags of heroin and $1,500 in cash. Coroner Scott Sayers was able to confirm at least 10 heroin overdose deaths in 2013.

Andrea Boyles, CEO of Centre County Youth Service Bureau, is one of the stakeholders Lunsford is working with on the project.

“What we want to do is to keep kids from bouncing in and out of the system,” she said. “Let’s make sure we maximize the experience, make sure they take advantage of the resources that are available.”

The idea is that qualifying kids who enter the court system would be placed in a program that emphasizes treatment and recovery, helping them overcome the problems that have brought them to law enforcement rather than setting them up for a lifetime of coming in and out of jail.

According to Christopher Deutsch, director of communications at the National Association of Drug Court Professionals, the recidivism rate for drug court participants is a photo negative of the jail system. Where 75 percent of those who go through drug court won’t re-offend, 75 percent of those in the criminal justice system will. And that makes it an attractive prospect for a program dealing with kids.

“The beauty of the juvenile justice system is that it’s set up to treat kids differently. At any given moment, you have the opportunity for a restart,” Boyles said.

Cathy Arbogast, at Centre County Drug and Alcohol, has bemoaned the fact that it is hard to follow up with those who participate in rehab programs. With a drug court, that kind of care could be part of the requirement, making it more effective.

“It’s a treatment-centered model,” she said. “We can effect change. We can potentially change addictive behaviors.”

Within the next 30 days, the stakeholders are visiting similar programs in Blair, Lycoming and Mifflin counties to see how they work and how their models might adapt to Centre’s needs. That is similar to the tactic Lunsford used when establishing the Children’s Advocacy Center, which opened last month, and the other agencies are enthusiastic. Boyles said that even if they decide that a full-blown drug court isn’t the answer, some of the policies and procedures used in other programs could be adapted to what the county is already doing for children in the system.

“I think we have consensus around the table that we are doing what we do well, but we could do better,” said Lunsford. “I think that what is most heartbreaking for any judge is to see any child graduate from juvenile court to adult court. It happens more often than we would ever care to see.”