Richard Dohoney: Berkshire County needs a drug court
PITTSFIELD >> Any questions about the severity of our drug problem in Berkshire County are sadly answered on both the front page and the obituary page of the Eagle. Headlines reporting decade-long sentences for heroin-related crimes seem daily and the "unexplained" deaths of young people are far too frequent.
As a community, Berkshire County must focus harder on the solutions to this plague. I am not a doctor, a member of law enforcement or a social worker. I have not participated in the so-called "war on drugs" and I don't know have a magic cure for the disease of addiction. I have, however, spent a lot of time in our local courtrooms and I know that Berkshire County courts are not properly equipped to serve the endless string of addicts that cross their doors. Berkshire County needs a drug court.
A proven success
Drug courts substitute traditional criminal penalties, like incarceration, with intense, supervised drug treatment and testing. Specially trained counselors and court personnel provide assessments, rigorous treatment and outreach. Drug court staff members maintain close working relationships with treatment providers and drug court judges closely monitor progress and impose graduated sanctions for noncompliance. Most importantly, participation in and completion of a drug court program requires and cultivates accountability and personal commitment to sobriety.
Drug courts work. A comprehensive 2005 study by the US Government Accounting Office (GAO) found that drug courts significantly reduce crime as much as 35 percent more than other sentencing options. The Massachusetts Judicial Branch reports that 75 percent of drug court graduates remain arrest-free at least two years after leaving the program. Independent studies examining long-term outcomes of individual drug courts have found that reductions in crime last at least three years and can endure for over 14.
Massachusetts has 22 adult drug courts and one juvenile drug court but NONE of them are in Berkshire County. A wise judge once told me that "if your only tool is a hammer, everything looks like a nail." If the only tool we give our court system is a jail, then every addict will look like a criminal. As a practical matter, if we maintain the cloud of indefinite incarceration over addicts, we inhibit their friends and families from reaching out for the help they need. No one is served by keeping addicts in hiding until they inevitably enter the criminal justice system.
Even if you believe that those who violate our drug laws deserve incarceration, we simply can no longer afford it. In 2014, the average cost per year to house an inmate in a House of Correction in Massachusetts was $53,040.87. If there is a cheaper way to get the job done we, as taxpayers, deserve it.
The National Association of Drug Court Professional states that "nationwide, for every $1 invested in drug court, taxpayers save as much as $3.36 in avoided criminal justice costs alone (and) drug courts produce cost savings ranging from $3,000 to $13,000 per client. These cost savings reflect reduced prison costs, reduced revolving-door arrests and trials, and reduced victimization."
Wide state backing
Unlike almost every other current public policy issue, drug courts enjoy deep bipartisan support. Our Republican governor Charlie Baker recently said, in reference to the soon-to-be-opened Springfield Drug Court, "I think drug courts where they've been implemented have worked...and we'll certainly continue to support the development of drug courts." Democratic State Representative "Smitty" Pignatalli of Lenox said "I think every county in the commonwealth should have a drug court."
Let's come together as a county and encourage and support our judiciary in establishing a Berkshire County Drug Court.
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