Courting changes in drug prosecution

About 10 years ago, then-Hennepin County Chief Judge Kevin Burke convened a group of prosecutors, public defenders, corrections, law enforcement, addiction experts, and the public to create a relatively novel court--a court that dealt solely with drug-related offenses. The group was trying to stem the rising rates of drug and violent crime. Instead of just putting drug offenders in jail, it tried to get at the roots of why people were using and selling drugs. If the court could solve those problems, drug-related crime would go down.

Hennepin County's current Chief Judge, Lucy Weiland, says a multi-agency task force determined that drug court is a good alternative to traditional courts. But, she said its caseload is soaring.

"We have been handling for the last 10 years anywhere from 1,600-1,800 cases a year. And at the end of 2005, there were almost 3,500 offenders on probation. That's a pretty unmanageable number," Weiland says.

Drug court requires offenders to submit to numerous drug tests, intensive monitoring, and even basics like getting jobs or education. In addition, defendants report their progress not only to probation officers; frequently they must also go before a judge who, unlike the probation officer, has the power to send them to jail.

Weiland says there are just too many offenders for drug court to handle. She says national research on drug courts suggested a ratio of 40 drug offenders to one probation officer. She says the ratio in the county's drug court is approaching 200 to 1. Weiland says the task force decided that drug court needed to apply its resources where they are most effective.

"What we concluded was that you had to be chemically dependent and at high risk to re-offend. Those are clearly criteria that everybody agreed made sense, according to the status of the research," Weiland says.

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At the end of 2005, there were almost 3,500 offenders on probation. That's a pretty unmanageable number.

A group composed of a judge, prosecutor, public defender, law enforcement and an addictions expert will now make the final decision on who's eligible for drug court. They'll be using a screening tool devised by a University of Pennsylvania researcher.

The drug court's creator, Judge Kevin Burke, declined to comment on the changes. The county's current lead drug-court judge Gary Larson also declined comment.

Hennepin County's Chief Public Defender, Len Castro, says there's no question that drug court has helped a lot of people turn their lives around. But he says going through drug court is taking much longer than it should.

"Now with change in personalities and change in procedures that have gone on over the last five, six years, you see a lot of folks staying in so much longer without any additional benefit," Castro says.

Hennepin County Prosecutor Pete Cahill welcomes the changes.

"I think it's a very positive, the court as it had been was a 'one size fits all'--if you're charged with a drug crime let's put you in treatment. Some of those drug offenses were drug-dealing offenses and those people don't deserve treatment, they deserve prison," Cahill says.

The idea of limiting drug court to some drug offenders is not new. Allowing people who have long histories of dealing cocaine, for example, has always been an issue for debate. The changes run counter to opinions expressed in a 1999 evaluation of drug court. Key officials said the court had to be available to as many drug offenders as possible in order for the county to make a dent in drug and violent crime.

Judge Weiland says the changes in drug court should be complete in about three months.