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Drug Court

Drug Court participant Chandra Barth, with boyfriend Jesse Merkle, attends a session with counselor Clifford Paine at the Twin Falls County Treatment and Recovery Clinic on July 8.

TWIN FALLS • Despite strong success rates, the four Felony Drug Courts of the 5th Judicial District lost 10 of their participant slots July 1 for failing to fill them.

That could mean fewer drug users in south-central Idaho will get the intervention meant to keep them from offending again.

And a similar program run by Twin Falls County Prosecutor Grant Loebs’ office won’t be able to pick up any cases denied Felony Drug Court slots because Loebs’ new Substance Abuse Recovery Program uses different admission guidelines.

Israel Enriquez, the 5th District’s Felony Drug Court coordinator, is waiting to see the full effect of the lost slots. But he fears he’ll have to turn away drug users who could benefit.

“So many of our participants come from situations where the drug use is generational,” Enriquez said.

In Idaho, fewer Felony Drug Court graduates re-offend than those who finish probation terms and rider programs, which are in-prison therapeutic programs with the Idaho Department of Correction. An evaluation conducted by Idaho’s drug courts in 2014 showed that only 39 percent of Felony Drug Court graduates statewide re-offend compared with 54 percent and 51 percent of probation and rider graduates in similar cases.

The Idaho Supreme Court funds Felony Drug Courts for a specified number of cases. The courts rely on referrals from judges, defense attorneys and prosecutors to fill the slots that open up as participants graduate or fail out.

The 5th District — which covers the eight counties of south-central Idaho — had 74 slots to share between its four Felony Drug Courts, but after graduation ceremonies every April and October it takes a while to get the referrals needed to refill the program.

Because the 5th District’s Felony Drug Courts were not fully booked, the Idaho Supreme Court canceled 10 of their slots. Now the four courts — in Twin Falls, Jerome, Blaine and Cassia counties — can take a total of only 64 participants.

What Drug Courts Do

Felony Drug Court is a type of probation offered to individuals who fit certain guidelines. A felony case is considered if the person had at least one felony in the past, has a medium to high chance of re-offending, has never been convicted of a sex crime and has either drug- or DUI-specific charges. Drug Court is similar to probation but gives more direct oversight as participants submit to drug testing, attend weekly therapeutic classes and meet regularly with a judge to discuss their progress.

“What I found working back as a probation officer is that I was able to help more with the people in Drug Court,” Enriquez said.

Felony Drug Courts target individuals who have been in and out of the system and attempt to stop the revolving door that symbolizes so many repeat offenders, Enriquez said.

Chandra Barth has been in the Twin Falls Drug Court since January — admitted after past punishments didn’t keep her from re-offending.

“This program has helped a lot,” Barth said. “I violated probation back in December, and this has kept me straight since then.”

Felony Drug Court features early-recovery classes designed to keep participants from relapsing, along with skill, moral recognition and family education classes.

“Pretty much we come in and answer to the judge each week about how we are doing and how our classes are going; it keeps you accountable,” Barth said. “Having to answer to the judge each week is really helpful.”

It can take a year to 18 months to graduate from Felony Drug Court depending on how quickly an individual moves through the phases. Before graduating a participant must be six months sober, finish all treatments, pay $1,500 court costs and obtain a GED if he doesn’t already have one.

“What I tell our participants is they will get out of it what they put into it. It’s not going to be easy, but it works,” Enrique said. “We certainly don’t have an answer to the drug and alcohol problems that plague our community, but it does help.”

The loss of 10 slots means future referrals may have to be delayed or denied if the courts are already at capacity.

Changing Criteria

Felony Drug Court referrals contain a risk assessment score that considers 10 factors such as criminal history, education, financial situation, living accommodations and family support. The courts accept cases considered mid- to high-risk.

In November 2011, the statewide Drug Court Coordinating Committee changed the guidelines for Felony Drug Courts in Idaho, effective in the 5th District in 2012. The committee is comprised of judges, advocates and Idaho Supreme Court staff and includes District Judge Richard Bevan and Linda Wright, trial court administrator from Twin Falls.

When the 5th District’s first Felony Drug Court opened in Twin Falls in 2000, it targeted low-risk cases. But a 2008 study — funded by the Idaho Supreme Court and the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration — concluded that lower-risk cases should be excluded due to an observed regression when they shared classes with higher-risk offenders.

The study also said low-risk populations had more protection factors such as family support and financial stability and were less likely to re-offend. The study concluded that tax dollars would be better spent targeting repeat drug offenders with more established drug histories.

“To run a watered-down program we wouldn’t be helping taxpayers,” Enriquez said. “We want to target high-risk individuals, and if we can identify them we can help turn their life around, saving money.”

But the exclusion of low-risk cases created a new hole in the system, according to Twin Falls County’s prosecutor.

“Drug Court here was started with a completely different set of standards than are currently being used,” Loebs said. “It’s a completely different animal.”

A New Option

That switch to targeting high-risk cases meant first-time users without prior felonies were left out of the Felony Drug Court programs and classes. Loebs saw this population in need of help to beat their addictions, and his office created the Substance Abuse Recovery Program shortly after the 2012 shift. It’s designed to give first-time offenders in Twin Falls County a chance to avoid prison sentences while attending classes to help them turn their lives around.

“We saw a gap that unfairly treated the low-level people, and that just didn’t sit right with us,” Loebs said.

Much like Felony Drug Court, SARP is a type of probation with more direct oversight. It targets individuals who recently fell into drug use and got caught. Participants must submit to drug testing, attend classes and follow certain restrictions until they are through the course.

“The monitoring is every bit as rigorous as Drug Court,” Loebs said.

Before anyone can be considered for SARP, the prosecutor’s office and the defense attorney must decide that the individual is a good candidate. Both attorneys go before the judge and make their recommendation for the program, and the individual must plead guilty to the felony charge. Then the judge decides whether to allow the offender into SARP.

If a participant successfully completes SARP, he enters a two-year probation. If he finishes probation successfully the case will be dismissed and not appear on his record, helping with future employment opportunities.

“Without this program there would be a lot of extra hassle for these people,” Loebs said.

In just over two years of SARP, about 40 cases have been accepted, Loebs said. No one who finished the program has re-offended.

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