2018-02-10 / Front Page

‘Specialty Courts’ garnering accolades

Many men and women who come into contact with the criminal justice system are at a crossroads in their lives. More often than not, abuse of alcohol or other drugs has played a large part in the behavior that led to their arrest.

Addressing the underlying issues of substance abuse to help criminals embark on a new lifestyle is the foundation of the “specialty court” system in Potter County. Slowly but surely, the new approach has been making a difference.

Now in its fifth year, the DUI Court offers certain alcoholic offenders the opportunity to access treatment and support services which, if successfully completed, can lead to a reduction in criminal charges.

A separate Drug Court was launched a year later with a similar format for those addicted to drugs other than alcohol.

Goal of both courts is to reduce relapse and recidivism by addressing each qualifying individual’s needs with a customized treatment plan and intensive supervision by the Potter County Probation Department.

Senior Judge John Leete, who presides over both of the specialty courts, has been an ambassador for the alternative criminal justice option. “I’ve been a judge for more than 30 years and this is the best thing I’ve been involved in,” Leete said. “We’re solving problems with a different approach. This is about saving lives, rebuilding lives and new beginnings.”

Nationally, more and more court jurisdictions are adopting the treatment court systems. Few of the specialty courts have been implemented in a county as rural as Potter.

Potter County has also started a pilot “pretrial diversion program,” through which those who are initially charged with a crime are evaluated early in the processing of their cases for issues such as alcoholism, drug addiction or other circumstances that could be addressed.

Overarching goal of the three initiatives is to improve public safety by reducing the number of repeat offenders, thus lowering jail populations and saving costs.

Potter County President Judge Stephen Minor first proposed the DUI and Drug Courts after studying other models.

“Our court system has been like a revolving door,” Minor said. “Offenders would return to the community and have the same types of problems. We’d see the same people and even multiple generations of the same family in every aspect of the court, over and over, at Children and Youth Services, Domestic Relations, and criminal proceedings.”

Potter County District Attorney Andy Watson, whose participation in the specialty courts is critical to their success, has also recognized their value.

“Participants are rebuilding their lives, which is also providing marked savings to our courts and legal system,” Watson said.

Only non-violent offenders who meet specific criteria are accepted. The program includes an initial stay in the county jail, mandatory treatment, probation supervision, drug and alcohol testing, community service, and attendance at two public court hearings per month where all participants discuss their issues, successes and failures.

Colleen Wilber, administrator of drug and alcohol services for Potter County, is also a member of the treatment court team and has been tracking the results.

She said the DUI Treatment Court has saved approximately 10,000 jail days. The court has graduated 22 participants. Of those, just three have re-offended with an alcohol/drug charge.

The Drug Treatment Court has saved approximately 7,000 jail days. It has graduated 11 participants. One has re-offended with a drug/alcohol charge.

During the last quarter of 2017, the Drug Court had six active participants. The court processed 464 substance abuse tests, of which 100 percent were negative. Since the inception of the court in May 2015, participants have accumulated 1,058 hours of community service.

Likewise, the DUI Court for the same time period had six participants. All 470 substance abuse tests of came back negative. Since the start of the DUI Court in September 2013, some 3,143 community service hours have been accumulated.

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