Rehab the aim at drug court

Published 12:00 am Friday, March 19, 2010

By David Vitrano


LAPLACE – For almost a decade now the 40th District Adult Drug Court Program has quietly worked to rehabilitate non-violent drug offenders while simultaneously saving taxpayers money associated with incarceration.

According to Albert Burl III, the coordinator for drug court, it costs taxpayers about $35 per day to house a prisoner. While most would gladly pay that to keep violent offenders away from general society, much debate surrounds the fate of those who have committed lesser crimes.

Add to that the fact that a combination of prison overcrowding and budget cuts may lead to the release of nonviolent offenders anyway, and the logic behind the existence of an institution such as drug court becomes clear.

Under the program, persons charged with nonviolent, narcotics-related crimes may be referred by the District Attorney’s office for drug court. After an assessment, if the person is determined to fit the criteria for the program, they are admitted. The subject then enters a guilty plea, but in lieu of serving time in prison, an intensive rehabilitation program is begun.

“It gives the client a second chance to help with their addiction,” said Burl.

At the start of the program, participants are expected to attend three Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous meetings as well as submit to three drug tests per week.

But perhaps more importantly, if a client does not have a diploma, they must enter a GED program, and if a client has a diploma but is not employed, they must obtain and retain full-time employment.

Said Burl, “We help the client rehabilitate back into society.”

To that end, the program offers somewhat more compassion than parole or probation program. While parole or probation violations typically lead to jail time for an offender, the drug court program shows a little more leniency. Failed drug tests may be tolerated as long as the client shows progress and a desire for change.

“We realize it’s not going to stop at the drop of a dime,” Burl noted.

The 24-month program is divided into four phases that gradually decrease in intensity, with the fourth phase intended to serve as a transition between the program and regular society. Ideally, upon exiting the program the client will have a high school diploma and be gainfully employed and drug free.

The 40th District Adult Drug Court Program, which is overseen by Judge Jasmine, has the capacity to help 50 clients at a time. There are currently 48 participants in the program, and according to Burl, 13 of those are on target to graduate this year.

Burl said although the program is administered through the 40th Judicial District, it is really a cooperative effort. He explained cooperation from the District Attorney as well as the Sheriff’s Department have lead to increased success for the program.

Also, help from the community in the form of motivational or financial incentives have aided in the program’s efforts.

But Burl was quick to point out the gains go both ways.

“The program benefits society and the defender, also,” he said.