Chief justice visits area drug court

WELLSBURG – State Supreme Court Chief Justice Brent Benjamin visited the Brooke County Drug Court Monday to offer encouragement to graduates and praise for the local judicial and probation officials for their efforts to divert offenders involved with drug abuse from a life of crime.

Benjamin said the success of the drug court program that was started on a trial basis in Brooke, Hancock and Ohio counties has led to 30 others in the state, with regional drug courts set to serve all 55 West Virginia counties by 2017.

The new courts are a provision of Senate Bill 371, also known as the Justice Reinvestment Act, signed into law recently in Brooke County by Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin.

Benjamin praised Tomblin for working with the state Supreme Court to encourage the legislation, which was aimed at reducing regional jail costs by encouraging criminal rehabilitation.

The chief justice acknowledged prison overcrowding was cited by some proponents, but he said the effectiveness of simply incarcerating offenders whose crimes have been linked to drug abuse was his primary concern.

Through the court, criminal offenders deemed by court officials to be good candidates for rehabilitation are given an opportunity to undergo counseling for at least a year, during which they must undergo counseling, submit to random drug tests, report regularly to a drug court judge and perform eight hours of community service per week.

Failure to comply results in their being returned to the traditional court system and facing the penalties there for the crime for which they were charged.

Benjamin said the cost to expand drug courts has been estimated at $3 million, but it will save about $17 million in costs to incarcerate offenders whose drug habits lead them to return to crime.

He said a low number of drug court partcipants return to crime, with 14 percent of juvenile offenders who complete the program and 9.1 percent of adult offenders being arrested for later crimes.

Benjamin said about 60 percent of juveniles and 53 percent of adults complete the program.

“If we do nothing (except incarceration), 70 to 80 percent of them will come out of the criminal justice system and do drugs again,” he said.

Jim Stock, coordinator of the Northern Panhandle Drug Court program, said about 45 people participate in it each year and are monitored for a five-year period following their completion. About 90 percent haven’t returned to the court system, he said.

Stock said to be eligible for drug court, offenders may not have committed a past or present violent crime, one that requires them to be a registered sexual offender or one in which a child was a victim.

Benjamin thanked the circuit court judges, county magistrates, probation officers, case managers and others who have agreed to staff the drug courts.

Brooke County Magistrate Robin Snyder thanked Benjamin for supporting the program, noting he frequently attends the short graduation programs where those who complete the program are recognized and offered encouragement.

Benjamin said he’s seen hundreds of drug court graduates and found they are of all ages and from all walks of life.

Noting drug court completers have sometimes offered to mentor future participants, he said he would like to form an alumi group to help them in their daily lives.

“It would provide them another level of support. Once you’re addicted to drugs, it’s a lifelong battle to remain sober,” Benjamin said.