County considers new drug treatment

Prince William County is looking at creating a drug court for juvenile offenders that proponents say would more effectively deal with offenders than the current system.

A county task force was set up in 2001 to look into such a program under the recommendation of the Virginia Crime Commission in 1994.

Drug courts take a much more stringent approach to treatment than usual court programs, using intensive drug and alcohol testing each week, court monitoring and immediate sanctions if rules are broken.

Commonwealth’s Attorney Paul Ebert, who would work with the program, offered a qualified endorsement of it as an initial team moves forward with planning.

“It’s worth a try, I think,” he said. “I don’t think it’s going to be any mecca, but it might work for those cases with intensive probation and treatment. A lot are borderline situations of becoming chronic offenders.”

Virginia’s felony reconviction rate for drug court graduates averages 5.1 percent versus 50 percent for drug offenders sentenced to jail, prison or probation, according to state statistics.

The effectiveness of the drug court is due to the teamwork approach and its intensiveness, said Frances Hedrick, administrator for the county’s Juvenile and Domestic Relations Court.

“I’ve been to several courts and observed it’s quite different from what we are used to. A lot of what we see now is not a happy ending. But with drug courts, from the cases I observed, the youth were now drug-free and productive citizens.”

The 31st Judicial District Juvenile and Domestic Relations Drug Court would serve all of Prince William County and the cities of Manassas and Manassas Park.

Some drug courts are structured to deal only with first-time offenders, and conviction can be avoided if the programs are successfully completed, said Prince William County Supervisor Mary K. Hill, R-Coles. Hill serves on the state’s Juvenile Justice Delinquency Prevention Advisory Committee. Prince William County’s model has not yet been determined.

Judges statewide expressed a need for more efficient and effective handling of drug-related issues, according to a June 24 memo from Christina Frank, director of the county’s office of Criminal Justice Services.

The Office of Criminal Justice, on behalf of the juvenile court, applied for and received a federal grant for planning. Ongoing funding will be an issue, Hedrick said, and the county would also want to apply for an operational grant.

She is in charge of administering the grant already received and overseeing the progress of the planning team.

The team is comprised of a judge, prosecuting attorney, public defender, treatment representative, research evaluator, school representatives, probation officers and police. These same people would also serve on the permanent team that recommends offenders for the program. The Office of the Commonwealth’s Attorney and court officials would also be involved in the process, with Ebert’s office having veto power.

The planning team ultimately will present its model to the community’s criminal justice board, which is responsible for developing and operating community programs for the courts. Then it will go to local governing bodies for approval, but the timeframe has not been determined.

Thirteen drug courts are currently operating in Virginia, beginning with the 23rd Judicial Court (Roanoke Circuit Court) which began in 1995. Nine courts are scheduled for implementation within the next year and 11 courts are in the planning stages.

Staff writer Diane Freda can be reached at (703) 878-4723.