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Hillsborough program aims to expand success of drug treatment court

The new program of the Hillsborough State Attorney’s Office is described as a “younger sibling” to the county’s existing drug and problem-solving courts.

TAMPA — Hillsborough County for decades has offered treatment in lieu of jail or prison for some defendants accused of minor drug-related crimes. Specialized drug courts and other problem-solving diversion programs are a staple of the local judicial system.

Now, more defendants will have a chance to seek help for addiction, courtesy of the local prosecutor’s office.

Hillsborough State Attorney Andrew Warren announced in a news conference Thursday the creation of a program designed to expand the rehabilitative options available to low-level drug offenders. The program, dubbed Drug Education and Treatment Reducing Recidivism, or DETRR, will make the same kind of treatment available through the county’s problem-solving courts a possibility for thousands more defendants, Warren said.

“Let’s think about what we all want from our criminal justice system,” Warren said. “A safer community, fairness, consequences that put offenders back on the right track. Blindly locking up someone whose only crime is being addicted to drugs fails on all those goals.”

Warren described the new program as a “younger sibling” to Hillsborough’s drug and other problem-solving courts.

It seeks to address three types of offenders, with specific requirements for each. They include those accused of possessing fewer than 30 grams of marijuana, those with a first-time arrest for possession of any other drug, or those deemed low-risk, repeat drug offenders. Participants must remain arrest-free for six months. They can avoid prosecution and a criminal conviction if they complete the program’s requirements.

The program is not intended for people accused of dealing drugs, those with a history of violent crime or defendants deemed to be “high-risk.”

Drug courts tend to address those considered a high risk for re-offending. The new program addresses those considered a lower risk, but still in need of help, said Jeria Wilds, the assistant state attorney who administers the program. The State Attorney’s Office looked at similar programs in other jurisdictions in crafting their own.

Court officials assess a person’s risk by looking at his or her criminal record, substance abuse treatment needs and family history, Wilds said.

“We’re trying to get it right,” Wilds said. “We don’t want to guess anymore what’s best for somebody.”

Chris Harmon, a Marine Corps veteran, earlier this year successfully completed Hillsborough’s Veteran’s Treatment Court, which officials touted as similar to DETRR. He spoke at the news conference about how the program helped him overcome substance abuse problems, along with post-traumatic stress. He said he probably would be in prison, if not for the help he received.

“Sometimes, veterans or civilian, all you really need is a chance to make your life better,” he said.

About two-dozen people have participated in a pilot version of the program, which began earlier this year. So far, none have been re-arrested, the State Attorney’s Office said.