Jefferson County Drug Court Reaches New Highs

by scrosby on July 18, 2008

Jefferson County’s Drug Court was taken over by the state a year ago because it was underfunded. That move has allowed the program to expand staff and take on more clients. WFPL’s Stephanie Sanders reports on how those changes couldn’t have been more timely.

Drug court is not where people who have been arrested on drug-related charges report. In fact, drug court isn’t like any court you’ve seen on Law and Order or even Judge Judy. It’s part of the legal system, but also includes rehabilitation therapy and case management.

Monzella Wells runs Jefferson County’s Drug Court. And even though it’s existed since 1993, she says not many people know what it is, including drug offenders.

“Once they get to our doors, they have been through so many doors prior to our door, and they see us all, all resources that have ever reached out to them, they see us all as ‘the system’. We’re out to get them,” says Wells.Hall of Justice

Actually, they’re out to help them in a more intensive way. It was created as a way to reduce recidivism among non-violent drug offenders.

“Eighty percent of the people who are incarcerated have a substance abuse problem. Had it not been for drugs or alcohol, they probably would not have committed the crimes they committed,” says Wells.

Wells says she gets about ten referrals a week from Jefferson County courts, and about six of those defendants get into the program, located downtown. She says they have to want to change their lives because the minimum 18-month program is no cake-walk.

“Very, very intense. It’s very time-consuming. Privacy? You have none. We want to know where you work, where you live, who’s around you, is there any using in the house? Because there’s certain criteria they have to abide by and everyone in the program is on probation,” says Wells.

And who makes sure the offenders are meeting the criteria? The four judges that work with drug court. One of them is Judge Donald Armstrong. He checks in weekly or bi-weekly with drug court participants.

He’s intimately aware of the progress of each of the participants on his docket, greeting them before they get to the stand with a “are you still working at Dairy Queen?” or a “how’s the baby? still in the hospital?”… and when deserved, a ‘good job’.

Before the state took over the local drug court program, it was operated by the Jefferson County Attorney’s office and had four staff members and, frequently, a waiting list. Wells says since the KY Administrative Office of the Courts has taken over, they’ve added eight staff positions and greatly increased their client capacity.

“Right now we are at 192, I don’t know what our cap will be right now. Right now we don’t have one. So we don’t have a waiting list and we’re accepting people in every week,” says Wells.

And those new people come with a pricetag to the state.

“We want to punish smart,” says Justice and Public Safety Secretary J. Michael Brown, “and it’s far more expensive to keep people in prison than it would be to institute some of these other programs and have them be out in the society but more importantly not become a career criminal.”

The state pays 31-dollars a day for each inmate in prison… a total of 500-million dollars a year. It’s far less for those in drug court… but the state will still pay 12-million dollars this fiscal year to fund its 115 drug courts.

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