Vail Law: Colorado’s drug courts combine personal and legal issues (column) | VailDaily.com

Vail Law: Colorado’s drug courts combine personal and legal issues (column)

Rohn Robbins
Vail Law

Sometimes a crime is a really a personal problem wrapped up as a legal one. While illicit drugs and the misuse of alcohol can — and too often do — lead down a path to legal troubles, often the true culprit is addiction. While laws may certainly be broken, what undergirds the well-trod course to the courtroom is substance compulsion of one stripe or another. This is especially true in our mountain resort communities for reasons I'll leave to the sociologists to explain.

From my own anecdotal experience in too many criminal courtrooms to count over the last three-and-a-half decades, I can attest that ever-present on nearly every criminal docket is abuse of alcohol and less-frequently-but-still-abundantly, abuse of drugs. I do not think it hyperbole to hold that the majority of crimes committed have, at the least, a drug or alcohol component to them. Most crimes of domestic violence are fueled by booze. Clearly DUIs and DWUIs are crimes, a key element of which is a state-altering substance of one kind or another. Assaults in particular are all-to-often topped off with a drink or hit too many.

One attempt to try and address this problem is Colorado's drug courts.

Drug courts are part of Colorado's problem-solving courts which, as the name implies, recognizes that all criminals are not, well … criminals. While a person may have indeed violated the law, what lies beneath is not a hardened heart, but rather one struggling with a more personal demon.

Solving problems

Problem-solving courts offer a non-traditional approach to integrating treatment and criminal justice administration. These courts rely on close collaboration by multidisciplinary teams, including members from the judicial and treatment communities, to provide both accountability and rehabilitation services to offenders with the twin goals of reducing both substance abuse and recidivism. Problem-solving courts have become an important part of the fabric of the criminal justice landscape and they may be found, in one guise or another, in all 50 states. By some estimates, there are more than 2,300 problem-solving courts across the nation.

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As of January of last year, there were 80 problem-solving courts in operation in 20 judicial districts in the state of Colorado. Among them are adult drug courts, juvenile drug courts and DUI courts.

While the courts may differ in some of the details from district to district and state to state, what they have in common are the goals of humanely considering the individual, protecting society and meting out justice fairly and compassionately.

In the several decades since the first drug court was founded, there has been more research published on the effects of drug courts than on virtually all other criminal justice programs combined. What the research shows is that drug courts work. Better than jail or prison. Better than probation and treatment alone. Drug courts significantly reduce drug use and crime and are more cost-effective than any other proven criminal justice strategy.

Treatment and oversight

The primary thrust of the drug court program is to integrate substance abuse treatment, mental health treatment, intensive supervision and judicial oversight to promote public safety and individual responsibility. Drug court holds participants accountable and helps develop the skills necessary to attain long-term sobriety. By lifting the tide of individual responsibility, by providing resources, and in demanding accountability, all boats in the social anchorage rise.

Generally, offenders may be referred to the program by their attorney or a probation officer. Following the initial referral, offenders are screened by the drug court team. The team consists of the drug court judge, drug court probation officer, a deputy district attorney, treatment providers, the defendant's attorney and the drug court coordinator.

Initial screening determines the particular treatment needs and the willingness of the candidate to fully participate in drug court. If all parties agree that the candidate should be accepted into drug court, then, most commonly, treatment will begin immediately.

The drug court program is structured in three phases, with each phase lasting for a minimum of 90 days.

• Phase I includes required intensive treatment, community service, drug and alcohol monitoring, weekly meetings with the drug court probation officer and appearances at drug court reviews twice per month.

• Phase II incorporates all Phase I requirements with the following exceptions: meetings with the drug court probation officer and court appearances are reduced in frequency. Generally, a payment schedule for court costs is established in this phase.

• In Phase III, treatment is completed; court costs are paid in full; community service is completed and meetings with the drug court probation officer and court appearances are further reduced in frequency.

The program employs both sticks and carrots. Sanctions for violations may include a return to an earlier phase of the program, inpatient treatment, halfway house programs, mental health treatment, additional community service, additional drug and alcohol monitoring, increased self-help meetings or incarceration. Rewards for program compliance may include reduced community service, reduced drug and alcohol testing, gift cards, verbal recognition in court and permission to travel. Of course, at the end of the day, the greatest rewards are being spared the full thunder of the law and — most importantly of all — a new lease on a substance-free life.

Drug courts change the trajectory of a life veering off disastrously in the wrong direction. Instead of locking the door and throwing away the key, drug courts offer a compassionate alternative.

For more information on drug court in the 5th Judicial District (Eagle, Summit, Lake and Clear Creek counties) contact lisa.morton@judicial.state.co.us.

Rohn K. Robbins is an attorney licensed before the bars of Colorado and California who practices in the Vail Valley with the law firm of Stevens, Littman, Biddison, Tharp & Weinberg LLC. His practice areas include business and commercial transactions, real estate and development, family law, custody and divorce and civil litigation. Robbins may be reached at 970-926-4461 or at his email address, robbins@slblaw.com.