Drug court approved for Fifth Circuit

Published 12:40 pm Wednesday, May 27, 2020

By Tracy Agnew

Regional Editor


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Another way to help rehabilitate adults with substance abuse disorders may be coming to Western Tidewater — but first, it needs funding.

The “drug court,” as it’s known, passed a critical hurdle on May 15, when it received approval from the State Drug Treatment Court Advisory Committee in a unanimous vote.

It has also received funding from Isle of Wight County and Suffolk — two of the four jurisdictions of the Fifth Circuit, where the court will be located — bringing in about two-thirds of the proposed budget for the program.

Lots of local people are excited, said Elisabeth Culpepper, one of the assistant public defenders in the Suffolk Public Defender’s Office and the acting coordinator for the drug court.

“We need drug court,” she said. “Everyone kind of universally agrees that drug court is a good thing. At the end of the day, what we do here isn’t working.”

Culpepper said she first started earnestly researching how to set up a drug treatment court about a year ago.

“I was just so tired of telling clients and their loved ones that I didn’t have many real options for them,” she said. “It’s heartbreaking to sit with clients or their families and see the struggle they are going through and how desperately someone wants to get clean and sober.”

She added, “It’s not unusual for me to have a client that’s been on probation for 20 years. It’s not that they’re committing horrible crimes; they violate probation because they keep testing positive.”

Every locality in Hampton Roads except Suffolk already has an adult drug court. Across Virginia, there are about 36 drug treatment courts for adults and seven for juveniles.

Suffolk once had a drug court, around the 2004 to 2008 time frame, but it ended because of lack of funding. This time, Culpepper and others hope the program can encompass the entire circuit and maintain funding.

The first year of the program has a proposed $120,000 budget. Culpepper said $50,000 was included in Suffolk’s approved budget for the drug court, and Isle of Wight County passed a budget that included $35,000. Southampton County and Franklin are anticipated to pass their budgets soon.

Culpepper also is applying for grants, and training is set for those involved later this year.

Culpepper said the cost of drug court is worth it. The cost to incarcerate somebody for one year in Virginia is about $21,000, while drug court only costs about $2,500 to $4,000 per person annually. That’s to say nothing of unemployment levels dropping, less recidivism and less reliance on public welfare programs.

“No doubt, drug court is less expensive than what we’re doing now,” she said.

A committee that will oversee the drug court includes a judge, prosecutor, public defender or defense attorney, drug court coordinator, probation and parole representatives, social services, law enforcement and a treatment provider.

“That’s one of the reasons treatment courts are so successful,” Culpepper said. “It’s each of these moving parts working together towards the same goal.”

Drug court helps users break the cycle by not incarcerating them, but rather helping them. But those who go through the program must put in a lot of hard work.

“Drug court is not a get-out-of-jail-free card,” Culpepper said.

Only a small number of people will be permitted in the drug court program at any one time. Culpepper currently anticipates up to 30 participants across the entire circuit at once.

First, someone must qualify for the program. Culpepper said it will focus on those with drug-related probation violations, but there can also be a new drug possession charge or another nonviolent crime, like larceny, related to their drug habit. They cannot be a violent offender or a drug dealer. They have to be willing to comply with all of the aspects of the program.

“Drug court is a full-time job and then some,” Culpepper said. “It’s not just drug treatment; it’s everything else to help support the drug treatment.”

People in the program will come to drug court once per week. They will usually appear before Circuit Court Judge L. Wayne Farmer, who has been on the bench since 2014 and is the former commonwealth’s attorney in Isle of Wight County.

The program includes drug testing and treatment and requires participants to be working and performing community service if they’re able. They also must pay their court costs and may be required to do other things as part of their individualized plan, like pursue a trade degree or GED. The whole program will last 18 to 24 months for each person.

“Over time as they do well, they’ll progress to higher phases,” Culpepper said. “Ideally, they graduate. At the end of everything they will either be given a lesser conviction, or they’ll be given no jail time.”

On the other hand, “If they’re unsuccessful or not taking it seriously, they’re going to be back in front of the judge,” Culpepper said.

Local prosecutors said they support the drug court program. As is the case in many places, many of the defendants they deal with every day are suffering from substance abuse problems.

“If there’s some people that have a drug problem and we can help resolve that, that’s a good thing,” Suffolk Commonwealth’s Attorney Phil Ferguson said. “Unfortunately, there’s plenty of drug-related offenses we deal with all the time.”

“Any additional tool we can have is a good thing,” said Suffolk Deputy Commonwealth’s Attorney Derek Colvin. “Sometimes we’re left with no good options when it comes to drug addicts. There isn’t a whole lot we can do in the current system. You end up in a situation where there has to be consequences for failing to obey the court’s orders, but you’re not really accomplishing anything at the end of the day.”

Isle of Wight Commonwealth’s Attorney Georgette C. Phillips is excited about the Fifth Circuit being a step closer to having drug court.

“Isle of Wight has needed this opportunity for a long time and we anxiously await its implementation,” she wrote in an email.

Southampton County and Franklin Commonwealth’s Attorney Eric A. Cooke also said he is looking forward to the program.

“I’m optimistic that may be a tool that will be useful for some defendants,” he said. “What we want are some tools that will keep people from committing crime and bettering themselves and the community.”