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Sun Gazette: Pilot Drug-Court Effort Running in Line with Initial Expectations Print


Created:· Friday, September 13, 2013· 11:45am


The questions being fired off by Circuit Court Judge Louise DiMatteo were genial but still authoritative.

"How was your week?" "You tested negative, right?" How's your housing situation?" "It's not easy to find [a job], is it?"

Thursday mornings, DiMatteo – who was elected by the General Assembly to the bench last year – presides over Arlington's year-old "drug court" pilot program from a smallish, 11th-floor courtroom at the Arlington County Justice Center.

The initiative, which was approved by the Virginia Supreme Court last year, allows participants to have felonies expunged from their records if they successfully complete the program. Up to 10 local participants are allowed at any one time; this particular Thursday, there were five individuals – four men and a woman – checking in with the judge about their week's progress.

"It's not a punitive place," the judge told one of those participating. "It's a place to reinforce your treatment. We're going to be very honest with you."

The back-and-forth with each participant took about five minutes, with additional input from probation officials and the public-defender's office. Topics ranged from housing and jobs to the volunteer work some are required to provide and the funds they must pay to be part of the program. There was even a discussion of not letting the football season derail sobriety efforts.

DiMatteo, who had served in the county attorney's office before being elevated to the Circuit Court, kept proceedings upbeat.

"You are doing great," she told one participant from behind the bench. "You've got your sobriety moving forward. We don't want to derail that. Good work; have another good week."

Medical issues were front and center with one of the participants, who was having a hard time finding a medical provider to address heart issues.

"That's serious," DiMatteo said, asking if probation officials could provide help. They promised to do so.

On occasion, some of the participants attempted the fine art of negotiation with the judge. One asked to be let out of some of his required volunteer work for a few weeks so he could focus on getting a job.

"I don't want to get too overwhelmed," he told DiMatteo.

While skeptical, she agreed to cut the required volunteer hours.

There was an element of tough love to the proceedings. One participant, clearly not having the best morning, grumbled about the job options available to him. DiMatteo told him to be patient.

"You have to start somewhere," she said. "Get your foot in the door, get a job, show that you can be diligent."

Others were in more ebullient moods.

"I feel good about the program," the lone woman currently in the program told the judge. "I'm really excited about where I am, myself. It's encouraging, good for me."

On hand at the Sept. 5 morning hearing to see how things were progressing were Commonwealth's Attorney Theo Stamos, Clerk of the Circuit Court Paul Ferguson and Del. Patrick Hope (D-47th), who championed the drug-court concept even when county officials appeared dubious.

Hope said he "couldn't be more pleased" at the progress made over the first year.

"This is a second chance to really get their lives straight," he said of participants. "I hope we can, at the state level, expand the program."

Hope said that former Commonwealth's Attorney Richard Trodden hadn't been a fan of the drug-court concept, suggesting it was ineffective, but agreed to at least try out the idea. Stamos, who was elected in 2011 to succeed Trodden, also agreed.

The concept of an intensive program to help people shake their addictions has won the support of Offender Aid and Restoration and Phoenix Houses of the Mid-Atlantic. The Arlington/Falls Church drug court is one of nearly 30 statewide that have been established since the first one arrived in 1995. Support and training are provided by the National Association of Drug Court Professionals.

No one has been more intimately involved with the establishment of the local drug court than Dana Mertz of the Office of the Public Defender for Arlington and Falls Church. She, too, is pleased with how things are progressing.

"This year has been right on track with my expectations," Mertz said. "As a pilot program, our team has adjusted course when necessary, and has moved forward very naturally. I am very impressed by the hard work and dedication that each member of our team gives."

Who is eligible for diversion into drug court? Individuals have to be deemed dependent on – not simply using – drugs and/or alcohol, and have committed a felony offense. Those with violent felonies are excluded, said Matt Foley, the public defender for Arlington and Falls Church.

The program has been shoehorned into the current staffing and scheduling of the Circuit Court system, with no extra funds provided. Hope has praised Circuit Court Chief Judge William Newman Jr. for allocating the resources necessary to make the program happen.

Overseeing the program from the prosecutor's side is deputy commonwealth's attorney Evie Eastwood. Stamos praised her efforts at providing compassion to those in the program.

Those who meet all the program's requirements for a specified period of time "phase up," making their meetings with the judge an every-other-week occurrence rather than a weekly one.

It isn't an easy program, one of the participants said.

"I'm just focusing on being responsible, taking it one day at a time," she said.

Participants learn to focus on recovery while operating in their everyday lives in the community, Mertz said. The result is a win-win: Participants have a better chance at long-term success, while taxpayers don't have to foot the costs of re-arrest and incarceration.

Mertz said the ultimate goal is for expansion of the drug court to serve more people, but acknowledged there was more to do in the short term.

"We need to develop our program and become experienced at operating an effective drug court," she said.