DRUG COURT DISCUSSION: Members of the Pulaski County Drug Court Team evaluate the progress of program participants at their December 18 meeting. Pictured are (from left) the Honorable Marcus H. Long, Jr., Probation Officer Dana Manns, and NRVCS’ Lori Trail, Coordinator of the Drug Court Program. (Photo - Mike Wade/NRVCS)

DRUG COURT DISCUSSION: Members of the Pulaski County Drug Court Team evaluate the progress of program participants at their December 18 meeting. Pictured are (from left) the Honorable Marcus H. Long, Jr., Probation Officer Dana Manns, and NRVCS’ Lori Trail, Coordinator of the Drug Court Program. (Photo – Mike Wade/NRVCS)

By Mike Wade/NRVCS
mwade@nrvcs.org

Officials in Pulaski County have developed a new strategy to help address their community’s well-documented struggles with substance abuse.

The Pulaski County Adult Drug Treatment Court Program, which accepted its first participant in December, is designed as an alternative to incarceration for non-violent offenders with substance abuse-related charges. Spearheaded by the Honorable Marcus H. Long, Jr., 27th Circuit Court Judge, the Pulaski County program is the result of a collaborative effort between court officials, probation and law enforcement agencies, and NRVCS.

Offenders must voluntarily agree to participate in the Drug Court and are required to engage in substance abuse treatment while being subjected to intensive judicial supervision and frequent drug testing.

Before a participant can graduate from the program, they must also perform community service, pay a portion of the program’s cost, and either be employed or pursuing educational goals.

“Ultimately, our goal is to break the cycle of addiction, crime and incarceration in Pulaski County,” noted Drug Court Program Coordinator Lori Trail, an employee of NRVCS. “You really have to give credit to Judge Long…He’s pushed hard for Pulaski County to get this program because he routinely sees the devastating impact that addiction has on the lives of those who go before him in the courtroom.”

Trail also pointed to data from the state medical examiner’s office that shows Pulaski County ranks first among all other New River Valley localities in drug-related deaths from 2007 to 2010. In fact, Pulaski County’s death rate from overdoses of prescription drugs was 20.2% in 2011, compared to the statewide rate of 4.6% that same year.

“There are so many areas in which this community has been negatively affected by substance abuse,” explained Trail. “We’ve seen an increase in the number of kids placed in foster care, our child abuse and neglect case numbers are higher than the statewide rate, and it even impacts our unemployment rate,”added Trail. “These issues certainly aren’t unique to Pulaski County, but we have to be innovative in our approach to addressing them because we do have a limited amount of available resources and treatment options.”

Trail noted that with the sheer volume of offenders coming through the local court system, it is difficult to treat individual needs – which often leads to a high rate of recidivism. She went on to say that many substance abuse issues are not even discovered until the offender is on probation, making it even more challenging for court officials to ensure that appropriate treatment is provided to those who need it.

The Pulaski Drug Court consists of four phases: orientation/assessment and engagement, treatment retention, recovery/relapse prevention, and “giving back”/transition/graduation. Participants are expected to meet the requirements of each phase before they are allowed to advance to the next. This includes pre-determined periods
of abstinence from use of substances, which must be verified by drug screens.

Trail added that participants have up to two years to complete the program. At this point, the Pulaski Drug Court will enroll a maximum of ten participants annually. Two individuals are currently enrolled. Progress of participants is monitored by the Drug Court Team, which currently meets bi-monthly to discuss individual cases and referrals. The team also makes recommendations to Judge Long regarding incentives and/or sanctions for participants.

“We’re very early into the process, so I’m sure we’ll learn as we go along,” remarked Trail, “but we believe this model gives us a more coordinated treatment approach for substance abusing offenders in this community.”

Aside from addressing participants’ substance abuse and legal issues, Trail noted that the Drug Court program will work closely with other agencies in the community to take care of any collateral needs an individual may have, including: housing, transportation, job preparation, vocational training, and nutrition.

“We want to make sure participants have everything they need to be successful,” concluded Trail.