In the five years since the start of the Perry County Drug Court, the program is currently facing one of its most challenging years. So far, state budgetary cuts have only trickled down as far as staffing for some specialized circuit judges, but this year it will be affecting the number of people allowed in the state’s drug court programs.
For the drug court program in Perry County, that means less people will be admitted.
Currently, the local drug court works to serve around 60 clients at one time, and there had been plans to possibly add more. This can mean counseling, drug testing, therapy, outpatient treatment and even intensive, lengthy inpatient treatment. The have graduated dozens of people with many success stories.
While the founder of the drug court program in Perry County, Circuit Judge Bill Engle, will be the first to admit that drug court receives mixed reviews and has mixed results, he believes in its mission and is willing to try most anything to see his clients succeed. Engle is worried, however, about the newest changes that are being made to the program statewide, and what effect they will have on both the clients and the community that continue to endure the pain of rampant drug abuse.
A government study released in late 2011 reported that more people in the United States now die from drug overdose than car accidents, making overdose the number one cause of accidental death. Over the past 30 years, deaths due to drug use have jumped from 6,000 to over 35,000. Just since 1999, the number of people dying from drug overdose has risen 90 percent, while people dying from car accidents has dropped 15 percent.
The latest round of statewide budget cuts could affect those people who are most at-risk of dying as a result of drug abuse.
“What they are doing is reducing you 15.7 percent from the average number of participants per month, from April 2011 to April 2012,” said Engle.
After Perry County’s most recent drug court graduation on May 22, the program still has three participants over the number they will be allowed to have.
“Our cap is 42,” Engle said. “After graduation … we will have 45,” said Engle, adding that this will put them at the fewest number of clients they have had in several years.
Engle said that one of his greatest fears with these kinds of cuts is getting immediate help to the people that need it. Many of the people that come into drug court are at a point where they either quit using or risk death.
Most addicts, Engle added, are not criminals and deserve treatment, not prison, for their actions. A law passed in 2011 aimed to do just that by reducing the sentencing and degree of charges for many drug-related crimes. This law has received much criticism since it did not give any additional funding to Probation and Parole, a department that is now charged with handling the cases of many more convicted criminals.
The law also did not give any additional funding to go toward drug courts, drug testing, or treatment. Engle said that sometimes despite what the person deserves, if treatment is not available then clean time is the best thing he can offer, even if that means spending some time in jail until help can be found.
“That is what I do a lot,” he noted.
Since drug court will not be able to accept new clients until enrollment goes below the state-imposed cap, Engle said that, regrettably, they may have to adopt a fewer strikes policy in regard to clients before they are terminated from the program. In the past, drug court has stuck with clients through multiple relapses, and officials have been understanding that this is all part of the process of getting sober. While it is still unclear at this time how much that will have to change, they may have to start terminating clients sooner than they would have in the past.
This is worrisome to Engle, he noted, because he has seen in the past that after months of being sober, when people relapse their bodies react differently to the drugs, and they can overdose faster and on less of a dosage.
“I had an individual that I sent to Cumberland Hope, which is long term treatment center for women about 12 months or so,” said Engle. “The woman absconded after being there several months and it was reported to me that she had died. I was told it was from a drug overdose.”
Drug courts are not the only part of the judicial system to be struck by budget cuts. Courts across the state will be having three mandatory furlough days. This means that three normal business days for the courts will be closed without pay to help reduce the amount of money being spent.
“The judicial budget was reduced 25 percent,” said Engle. “It just makes it harder, but at least it saves jobs.”
Despite the cuts, Engle said he and his team both in circuit and drug court are still just as dedicated to getting the help to the people that need it.
“I don’t want to give you the impression that we are not operating,” he said, “because we are.”