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War on drugs to employ courtroom tactics

Hernando officials want to set up a new drug court to help treat and monitor addicts and halt the cycle of substance abuse and crime.

Sometimes the court system can seem like a revolving door.

People are arrested, convicted, serve their time and _ after the system spits them back out _ they reoffend and do it all over again.

Often, drugs are the culprit, officials say. Which is why Hernando County authorities are working to establish a new type of court that will help treat and monitor addicts in the hope that the cycle of substance abuse and crime will end.

"It's really exciting," said Clerk of the Court Karen Nicolai. "The whole court changes. Instead of, "You've done bad and we're going to throw you in jail,' it becomes, "You need to change' . . . and everyone in the court system becomes an advocate."

Hernando County's future drug court is still a ways from starting. Officials want to begin holding the specialized court between six months and a year from now, and are currently wrestling with funding issues. But already, various members of the legal, medical and law enforcement community are expressing hope.

The court would work like this:

A select group of offenders who want to stop abusing drugs and alcohol would be tapped for the program. (Accused drug dealers and violent criminals would be generally excluded from eligibility). Then, instead of going to jail for their offenses, the "clients" would agree to treatment and strict monitoring. They would be required to go to counseling, submit to weekly and random drug screening and appear in court once a week to report on their progress. This process would go on for at least one year, with certain requirements lessening with time.

Circuit Judge Richard Tombrink, who already presides over a specialized court for domestic violence offenders, will head the drug court.

"Nationwide, drug courts have a tremendous success rate," Tombrink said. "We have the carrot and the stick. The carrot is, we're going to try to help (people) if they want help. The stick is, if you mess up, you go back for prosecution or sentencing. Jail."

The system works, statistics show. In a recent study of drug courts in Escambia and Okaloosa counties, graduates were significantly less likely to be re-arrested as non-participants and were twice as likely to be employed at the time of discharge. Specifically, 48 percent of Escambia's graduates were re-arrested within 30 months of completing the program, versus 86 percent of non-graduates. Twenty-six percent of Okaloosa's graduates were arrested, compared to 63 percent of non-graduates, according to the Florida Alcohol and Drug Abuse Association.

A key factor in keeping recidivism down is continual followup, said Sharon Rose, a division manager of the Harbor Behavioral Health Care Institute. Rose said that her agency often sees people who will not admit they have a problem or, after they admit their addiction, fall back into old patterns. Drug court would help prevent that, she said.

"It really is hard in substance abuse treatment to get that follow through, but the court forces it. And if they don't follow through, there are consequences," Rose said. "It won't be easy. This is going to be a tough program. But it will give people a chance to avoid a criminal record and to get sober. It's a double win."

A recent study shows substance abuse begins early for many Hernando residents. A tenth of all middle school students went to school drunk or high during the past school year, and a third of high school students have tried an illicit drug other than marijuana, according to the study, done by the state Department of Children and Families. The study also shows Hernando teens use alcohol, drugs and tobacco at a rate higher than the state average.

Because drug courts have been so successful, they are proliferating nationwide. The first court was established in Miami-Dade County in 1989. Today there are more than 800 similar programs throughout the United States, Tombrink said. Hillsborough County established such a court in 1992 and four years later, started the state's first drug court for juvenile offenders. Citrus County began holding drug court in June.

Not only does research show drug courts help people get off drugs, it also shows that they save money.

Osborne James, who oversees Marion County's drug court, said the program has saved his county more than $2-million since its inception by treating people, instead of throwing them in jail and spending $24,000 a year per person to feed and house them.

And that does not include the money saved if the person stays off drugs and never has to be arrested again. Nor does that take into account lower crime rates and the creation of parents who are better fit to raise their children.

All this, for $50,000 to 60,000 in administrative costs a year, Nicolai estimated.

Sheriff Richard Nugent said drug court will help the entire community, not just addicts.

"From a sheriff's standpoint, if we can knock down the demand side for drugs, it helps us (chip away at) the supply side," he said. "And it saves taxpayers money in the long run."