Drug courts to get $1.9 mil­lion boost

Pro­grams in Washington, Ben­ton coun­ties to re­ceive fed­eral fund­ing

Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette - - FRONT PAGE - BRAN­DON MUL­DER

The U.S. De­part­ment of Health and Hu­man Ser­vices has an­nounced it will re­lease up to $1.9 mil­lion to two Arkansas drug court pro­grams in North­west Arkansas.

Washington and Ben­ton coun­ties each will re­ceive $325,000 for each of the next three years to help ex­pand and sup­port an in­creas­ingly pop­u­lar drug treat­ment method. Across the coun­try, as well as in Arkansas, drug courts have helped pro­vide coun­sel­ing and ser­vices for people caught up in the crim­i­nal jus­tice sys­tem be­cause of drug abuse.

Washington and Ben­ton coun­ties’ $1.9 mil­lion in grants is just a slice of the fed­eral de­part­ment’s $80.8 mil­lion grant bud­get for drug and well­ness courts across the coun­try. Ac­cord­ing to the de­part­ment, the treat­ment pro­grams have become one key strat­egy in fight­ing Amer­ica’s opi­oid epi­demic.

“As [Health and Hu­man Ser­vices] has car­ried out a na­tional lis­ten­ing tour on the opi­oid epi­demic — one of our top three clin­i­cal pri­or­i­ties — we have heard

from many Amer­i­cans find­ing re­cov­ery through drug courts, and we are pleased to sup­port such work,” de­part­ment Sec­re­tary Tom Price said in a state­ment.

The grants are awarded ev­ery year to courts across the coun­try based on a com­pet­i­tive ap­pli­ca­tion process. The last Arkansas county to re­ceive grant fund­ing was Craig­head County, which re­ceived $316,426 in 2013, ac­cord­ing to fed­eral records.

Of Arkansas’ 75 coun­ties, 58 have ac­tive drug court pro­grams. Mis­sis­sippi County was the lat­est to adopt a pro­gram in 2015.

The state’s largest pro­gram is in Pu­laski County, which be­gan in 1994 and now in­cludes 502 de­fen­dants, ac­cord­ing to state fig­ures.

With the boost in fund­ing, Washington County’s drug court will be able to ex­pand into Madi­son County, of­fi­cials said. Once a week, drug court ad­min­is­tra­tors will hold drug court at the Madi­son County court­house to better serve people in that area.

Washington County’s drug court pro­gram, which is the sec­ond largest in the state, cur­rently has 430 par­tic­i­pants, with about 100 en­ter­ing the 15-month-long pro­gram each year. The ex­pan­sion into Madi­son will in­crease that num­ber, al­though of­fi­cials aren’t yet sure by how much.

People are el­i­gi­ble for the pro­gram if they pick up felony drug pos­ses­sion charges, pro­ba­tion re­vo­ca­tion charges or any non­vi­o­lent charge where pro­ba­tion of­fi­cers de­ter­mine a de­fen­dant may strug­gle with ad­dic­tion. Felons with vi­o­lent charges, or those whom the court has rea­son­able sus­pi­cions of drug deal­ing, are in­el­i­gi­ble for the pro­gram.

Once in the pro­gram, par­tic­i­pants un­dergo weekly coun­sel­ing, weekly drug screen­ings, tri-weekly group ses­sions and fre­quent vis­its with pro­ba­tion of­fi­cers. Par­tic­i­pants also are en­cour­aged to en­ter a 12-step pro­gram, such as Al­co­holics Anony­mous or Nar­cotics Anony­mous.

Ben­ton County’s drug court pro­gram serves 215 par­tic­i­pants — a 60 per­cent in­crease com­pared with last year — and is the state’s third largest. The pro­gram adds 100-120 new de­fen­dants to its rolls each year.

The grant dol­lars will en­able the pro­gram to hire one ad­di­tional coun­selor at a salary of $29,252, as set by the state, of­fi­cials said. With the added help, drug court co­or­di­na­tor Michelle Bar­rett said she would be better able to con­nect her pro­gram with com­mu­nity part­ners.

“You’d be sur­prised at how many people still don’t know that Ben­ton County has a drug court, yet we’re the third largest in the state,” she said.

With more op­por­tu­nity to spread aware­ness of the pro­gram and its ben­e­fits in the com­mu­nity, “we project that we’ll con­tinue to see an in­crease in our num­bers,” Bar­rett said.

The Washington and Ben­ton county pro­grams are but­tressed with sup­port from the Arkansas Com­mu­nity Cor­rec­tion De­part­ment, which sup­plies staffing, and county gov­ern­ments, which sup­ply build­ings and oc­ca­sional fi­nan­cial sup­port.

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