ELKHORN — County officials are ironing out the details of the Walworth County drug court, which will target people who have been arrested for possession of heroin.
The drug users will be guided through a treatment court, and, if they are successful in their treatment, they will receive a lighter punitive sanction.
The county recently received notice that it will receive a $157,609 state grant to fund the drug court. That money will be used to fund treatment programs for the courts participants and to frequently drug test them.
On Jan. 24. the Walworth County Criminal Justice Coordinating Committee discussed how the court will work, who will be eligible to participate and what treatment options are available.
District Attorney Daniel Necci and his office will serve as a “gatekeeper” to the court, and will determine who might be eligible to participate. He said he won’t consider drug dealers.
“There is a clear line between addicts and those who sell the drug for profit,” he said.
In 2012, the Walworth County District Attorney’s Office had 22 cases of felony possession of heroin. A person who possesses heroin, in any amount, has committed a felony, according to state law.
Necci said the Walworth County Drug Unit also will assist him in identifying candidates for the program.
That unit will identify users who have expressed an interest in kicking a heroin habit.
“The hope is we get a handful that are successful,” Necci said.
He said Walworth County is a small community, and if addicts are successful in the drug court word will spread.
His hope is that within the heroin subculture, the drug court will become viewed “as a viable option.”
He also acknowledges that some people who are eligible for the drug court, may refuse to enter it.
“We are going to have people who prefer to stay heroin addicts,” he said.
In its first year, with the money that is available, the court hopes to have 10 to 15 participants.
At this time they are only considering heroin users, not people who are addicted to other opiate-based drugs.
To treat addicts in the drug court, the Health and Human Services Department will have a treatment provider.
David Thompson, the deputy director of the Health and Human Services Department, said he was concerned that there weren’t enough “qualified providers” outside of the department to handle the requirements of the grant.
“We thought we could do a better job in-house,” Thompson said.
The county board will need to approve a new position to coordinate the treatment aspect of the court, which likely won’t happen before its March meeting.
Thompson said it would probably take four to six weeks to find a viable candidate for the position. It would then take several more weeks before that person would be able to start.
The grant paying for the funding for treatment is also important because many addicts often see a financial burden to receiving treatment, according to a report from Katie Behl, the treatment court coordinator.
“(A national study) found the number one reason for not receiving substance abuse treatment among persons aged 12 or older who needed/felt they needed/made an effort to get treatment was no health coverage and could not afford the cost of treatment services,” Behl wrote in the grant request.
What is the incentive?
The drug court is geared toward being an intensive treatment option. Judge David Reddy said it won’t be a “cake walk” for participants.
The drug court participants will undergo treatment, make frequent court appearances, meet with a probation agent on a weekly basis and be subject to frequent drug tests. Behl said for the court to be effective participants will need to be drug tested about three times a week.
Necci said that he won’t consider a prison sentence for drug court participants. There is also the possibility that cases will be held open, and that they will be dismissed upon completion of the program.
Travis Schwantes, who heads the public defenders office, said he doesn’t view possession of heroin cases as “prison cases, unless they violate their probation.”
However, he said the possibility of eliminating a felony conviction might be enticing for some of his clients. He said many of his clients are more concerned about being a convicted felon than serving time in the county jail.
After the meeting, Schwantes said he isn’t sure how his clients will respond to the possibility of participating in a drug court. Some may want to take their chances in court and others might view working as a confidential informant with the drug unit as an option. However, Schwantes said he is optimistic about the drug court program.