Drug court gains state accreditation
NORRISTOWN >> “We got it! It means a great deal,” Montgomery County Judge Steven T. O’Neill beamed with pride as the county’s drug treatment court over which he presides was awarded accreditation by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court.
“When I started the drug court, I knew it was the right thing to do. Accreditation means we are doing the right thing. Offering a hand up, offering treatment and recovery as opposed to incarceration for people who suffer a life claiming disease was the right thing to do,” O’Neill added as Pennsylvania Supreme Court Justice Kevin M. Dougherty presented him with the certificate of accreditation.
Dougherty characterized O’Neill, who spearheaded the county program, as a man with a “heart of gold” who has made sure the program worked, and he praised the county commissioners for funding the specialty court.
“Job well done. Montgomery County citizens, you don’t know how fortunate you are to have people who truly care about the way of life in this county,” Dougherty said to thunderous applause from county officials and drug court participants and graduates who packed the ceremonial courtroom for the ceremony, which was followed by the court’s 90th graduation event Wednesday night.
The Supreme Court Accreditation Program for adult substance abuse treatment courts was developed in 2011 to recognize programs that follow “best practices,” according to Karen Blackburn, program administrator of the Administrative Office of Pennsylvania Courts.
“Accreditation is voluntary, and it’s a very rigorous process … and it is certainly not a rubber stamp,” said Blackburn, adding the review process includes onsite visits, a review of the program’s key components and graduation statistics.
To date, 35 courts statewide have applied for accreditation and only 24 have earned that distinction, Blackburn added.
The Montgomery County Drug Court Program, established in April 2006 and funded by the county commissioners, is an innovative approach to disposing of drug-fueled criminal offenses in a way that offers participants intensive help to fight their addictions, encourages them to change their lifestyles and offers them the opportunity to earn a dismissal of the charges against them or to have their court supervision terminated early.
Participation in the program, which is voluntary, is at least 15 months long and may last as long as three years. The length of the program depends on how well an offender succeeds in dealing with the addiction and becoming a productive, crime-free citizen. The program typically has 130 participants at any given time.
County Commissioner Chairwoman Valerie Arkoosh and fellow Commissioner Joseph Gale presented a proclamation to O’Neill recognizing the drug treatment court “for being an integral part of the county’s holistic approach to combatting the epidemic of addiction.”
“To hear Judge O’Neill tell the story of how drug court came to be is a story of personal passion and commitment. It really was a labor of love for him and a commitment to make things better in our community … and it is his passion that has kept drug court going,” said Arkoosh, adding O’Neill presides over the court with “empathy and insightfulness.”
“We know that no community is immune to addiction and it really does require a comprehensive approach to solve it,” she said.
The commissioners said drug treatment courts improve substance abuse treatment outcomes, reduce substance abuse and crime and do so at less expense than any other criminal justice strategy.
“Drug treatment court makes our community safer by reducing recidivism in the criminal justice system for crimes associated with addiction,” said Gale. “The first 10 years were a tremendous accomplishment and I look forward to future years of further accomplishments.”
Gale said research has shown that drug treatment courts save up to $27 for every $1 invested and up to $13,000 for every individual they serve. The county’s drug treatment court has had about 415 graduates since its inception, and 70 percent of the graduates have remained arrest free.
The drug court program uses the cooperative team approach and court review sessions of a treatment court, rather than traditional adversarial proceedings of criminal court. The goal is to have a program and environment that is both supportive and forces offenders to confront their addictions. It is designed to encourage the participant’s movement away from an addictive lifestyle but swiftly imposes consequences when the participant returns to addictive behaviors.
Under the program, the drug court treatment team — consisting of probation officers, treatment provider representatives, the judge, a defense lawyer and a prosecutor — meets weekly to discuss an offender’s progress and to develop an individualized strategy to assist an offender in dealing with their addiction.
Participants are under the supervision of, and regularly report to, a drug court probation officer. Offenders must voluntarily comply with all of the general conditions of supervision implemented by county probation and parole officers, including treatment and frequent, random drug testing.
Those who slip up in the program face punitive sanctions including brief jail stints, writing assignments or community service.
“Every member of that team understands that addiction is a disease, it’s a chronic disease, it’s a lifelong disease and that it has to be treated that way in order to make any true lasting progress in fighting this terrible problem,” Arkoosh said.
O’Neill praised all of those who make up the drug court team, including Assistant Public Defender Hindi Kranzel, who has represented participants since the program’s inception, Assistant District Attorney Cara McMenamin, the prosecutorial liaison to drug court, Michael Gordon, county chief probation officer, the county sheriff’s department and the counselors from treatment facilities that provide help to participants. O’Neill also thanked his judicial colleagues and the commissioners for their unwavering support.
Gordon said the accreditation “recognizes and validates the hard work” of the participants and members of the criminal justice community that have supported the specialty court program.
“The program works,” Gordon said.
“When I started the drug court, I knew it was the right thing to do. Accreditation means we are doing the right thing.” — Montgomery County Judge Steven T. O’Neill “Every member of that team understands that addiction is a disease, it’s a chronic disease, it’s a lifelong disease and that it has to be treated that way in order to make any true lasting progress in fighting this terrible problem.” — Montgomery County Commissioner Chairwoman Valerie Arkoosh
Nikki Golden holds her daughter as Montgomery Judge Steven T. O’Neill looks on at Golden’s drug court graduation.
Montgomery County Judge Steven T. O’Neill presides over the Montgomery County Drug Treatment Court.