Group seeking local drug court docket meets with lawmakers
Meeting with Sen. Dick Sears, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, and other area lawmakers, the group discussed broad goals and the reasoning behind the proposal.
"This is an exploration, to hear all your concerns," said Mary Gerisch, a board member with Rights and Democracy.
At a subsequent meeting, she said, the public, along with stakeholder agencies, religious groups and service organizations, will be invited.
Gerisch emphasized that the group also is not a decision-making body, but participants hope to encourage consensus around the issue of avoiding unnecessary incarceration for drug and alcohol offenses.
The goal wasn't to register complaints about the current judicial process, said one of the organizers, Select Board member Jim Carroll, "but to do whatever we can to re-establish a drug court in Bennington County."
Gerisch cited statistics illustrating how treatment/supervision alternatives to a court conviction and incarceration can not only benefit individuals but reduce costs for the criminal justice system — and state and local governments in general.
"This is actually fiscally responsible," Gerisch said, adding that the average cost of incarcerating someone ranges from about $65 to $250 per day, not including any medical or prescription costs associated with the person.
In addition, she said, there are significant secondary costs — such as for welfare, foster care or Medicaid expenses when a wage earner is incarcerated.
Educator Rachel Blumenthal said statistics surrounding such programs have been developed statewide and nationally, and they show definite cost savings and societal benefits. The goals include reducing the jail/prison population through the use of addiction treatment and supervision for those considered likely to take advantage of the opportunity.
"It is not 100 percent, but there are numbers that show the benefits," Blumenthal said.
Sears, Bennington Police Chief Paul Doucette and Ken Sigsbury, of Turning Point Center, all spoke to the critical elements in the success of a drug court or similar treatment docket. That revolves around how people under arrest are chosen for the alternative program and how much confidence in the process there is within the offices of the public defender and state's attorney.
In tracing the history of drug courts, which originated in Florida about 25 years ago, Sears said such dockets depend on cooperation among judges, the state's attorney, defense attorneys and case workers assigned to the court to monitor the progress of those in the program.
He and others referred to tensions between prosecutors and defense attorneys over the selection process when a drug court docket operated in Bennington about a decade ago.
Doucette raised some concerns, saying the nonprofit Center for Restorative Justice already offers similar services locally, which the chief said he wouldn't want to see negatively impacted. He suggested attempts to strengthen that existing program and cautioned against creating duplicative services.
And Doucette said he would like to see more data on how candidates for the program should be assessed and how the workers follow up on conditions set by the drug court.
"You need caseworkers to check up on people," he said. "You can't count on the Probation Department," because of staff limitations.
Doucette later added, "We also have to understand that the safety of the community is paramount. That is why we incarcerate [some] people."
Sigsbury agreed with Doucette concerning the CRJ program, saying, "I think we have to keep an open mind about what Paul said. We can work with what we have. I don't care what we call it; we have similar goals."
All ideas and concerns should be on the table for the next meeting, Gerisch said, when Leitha Cipriano, executive director of the CRJ, will be invited, along with representatives from other related organizations and government departments and agencies.
She also promised to do additional research on the questions raised by Doucette about the assessment and selection process.
The state budget submitted by Gov. Phil Scott could put further pressure on the justice system, Sears told the group, due to proposed funding cuts that could affect the number of judges and the state's attorney and public defender offices. He said there are efforts in the Legislature to restore some of that funding.
An obvious focus for a drug court docket, Sears said, would be on persons facing non-violent drug- or alcohol-related offenses who are awaiting trial.
At a given time, he said, there are around 400 people awaiting trial in the state. Effective treatment options at that point in the process could have a significant impact, Sears said, possibly lowering the number being held by roughly a fourth.
Vickie Lampron, of Rights and Democracy, said she has faced addiction issues for someone close to her and can related to the effects on an entire family. She said that also radiates out into society when a person is convicted and incarcerated and later must try to find work with a criminal record.
Treatment also is important for mental health problems that are intertwined with addiction issues in many instances, Lampron said.
Funding for drug court programs is available from federal, state and private sources, Gerisch said, and in other courts some personnel volunteer their time or are part of an existing addiction, mental health or health care network.
Those attending the session at St. Peter's Episcopal Church in Bennington included state Reps. Mary Morrissey and Timothy Corcoran of Bennington and Alice Miller of Shaftsbury.
State's Attorney Erica Marthage could not be reached Tuesday for comment on the proposal.
Currently, specialty court dockets in Vermont include an adult drug treatment docket in Rutland and four other treatment dockets.
The Vermont Judiciary operates specialty court dockets throughout the state, according to the judiciary's website. These offer individuals with substance use disorders and mental health conditions the opportunity to enter treatment and avoid consequences, such as incarceration or termination of parental rights.
Jim Therrien writes for New England Newspapers in Southern Vermont and VTDigger.org. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org. @BB_therrien on Twitter.
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