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Arlington Connection: Reviving Drug Court Debate - Prosecutor's announcement may give life to drug court proposal. Print

© Created: Wednesday, December 08, 2010 4:30· PM EDT

The announcement that Arlington Commonwealth’s Attorney Richard Trodden will not seek reelection next year has given new life to efforts to create a drug court in the county. The effort dates back to last year, whenCircuit Court Chief Judge William Newman and the Arlington Community Services Board supported an effort to create a drug-court that would create a separate docket for repeat violators who find themselves in a perpetual cycle tied to clinical addictions. At the time, Trodden was only interested in offering treatment as an alternative to incarceration.

"We don’t need a sham drug court," said Trodden in an interview last year. "As I understand it, the drug court would meet weekly to see if they are working and keeping their job and toeing the line. And if they are not,it’s into the slammer they go for a while."

Trodden’s announcement that he will not seek reelection next year has renewed the debate about drug courts, once again opening the door to a potential agreement that would move the proposal forward. After a series of discussions between prosecutors, the public defender and members of the Community Services Board, the effort failed to gain traction — partly because of a lack of funding. "I would have hoped we would have made more progress in this area with Dick Trodden at the helm," said Del. Patrick Hope (D-47), a former chairman of the Arlington Community Services Board. "I’m still hopeful we can take a significant step in beginning to implement a drug court model in the months ahead and then move toward fully implementing the program with Dick’s ultimate successor."

DRUG COURTS were first created 20 years ago in Miami. Since that time, more than 2,000 have been created in all 50 states and 20 countries. Virginia has 30 drug courts, although each individual drug court has its own format. In Alexandria, for example, the drug court is held in the Juvenile and Domestic Relations Court so that those who can demonstrate they have kicked the habit can regain custody of their children.

"Our version of the drug court gives families the ability to reconnect if the defendant can leave drugs behind," said Circuit Court Judge Nolan Dawkins in an interview last year. "But with success also goes failure, and not many people relapse."

The Arlington Community Services Board estimates that about 80 percent of people in the Arlington jail have some kind of substance abuse problem, including alcohol abuse. Yet the criminal-justice system tends to punish repeat offenders as criminals rather than treat their addictions. Because each day in jail costs Arlington taxpayers about $150 per inmate, supporters of the drug-court movement say implementation would save money and reduce crime.

"The idea behind drug courts is that we shouldn’t wait until people are repeat offenders," said Chris Deutsch, communications director for the Alexandria-based National Association of Drug Court Professionals. "This eases the burden on police and saves taxpayers money in the long run."

BUT THE EFFORT might become part of the debate in the upcoming race to succeed Trodden. The four-term prosecutor has already endorsed his Chief Deputy Commonwealth’s Attorney Theo Stamos for the position. When asked about the drug court proposal, Stamos said existing Virginia law already gave judges discretion to expunge drug convictions upon completion of treatment programs for first-time offenders. Stamos said that she would be hesitant to extending that opportunity to repeat offenders.

"There has to be consequences," said Stamos, a Democrat who will be on the ballot during the summer primary. "At some point, it has to be dealt with."

Supporters of creating a drug-court model in Arlington say the chief benefit would be for the multiple repeat offenders, those whose addictions have created a cycle of convictions and a lengthy rap sheet. Drug court participants undergo long-term treatment and counseling, sanctions, incentives and frequent court appearances. Successful completion of the treatment program results in dismissal of the charges or lesser penalties.

"Incarceration generally does not address the underlying problem, but detoxification and treatment programs often do," said Carol Skelly, chairwoman of the Arlington Community Services Board last year. "Diversion to treatment improves the chances of turning offenders into contributing members of our community."