Not So Special? 

The County's Vaunted "Specialty Courts" Are Running Dry

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IF YOU INSIST on driving drunk in Multnomah County, there's a chance you know Judge Kathleen Dailey.

The supervising judge of Multnomah County's DUII Intensive Supervision Program (DISP), Dailey is in charge of riding herd on people with multiple drunken driving offenses to their name. In exchange for drastically reduced jail time, the offenders sign on to let Dailey dictate many of their choices for three years.

"We've put together a program that works," Dailey tells a group of prospective participants in an orientation video for the program. "It's solid. And it only works if you do all the pieces."

And it's true that DISP touts some impressive numbers. Three-quarters of people who enter so-called problem-solving court complete the program successfully. Only 10 percent of those graduates get another DUII within five years of completion.

But in DISP and offerings like it, there are other numbers to consider.

Where hundreds of new cases used to pour into the DUII treatment court each year, fewer than 100 made their way before Dailey in 2012.

In fact, most of the county's problem-solving courts—which offer lesser penalties in exchange for strict, mandated treatment of substance abuse, mental health, and domestic violence issues—have seen steady, often-dramatic declines in the last decade. Many of those same programs also appear to have seen recent funding increases.

Now, spurred by Multnomah County District Attorney Rod Underhill, local justice officials will take up whether the programs—often lauded as innovative solutions—need to be reworked or done away with.

"We all are operating on strained resources," Underhill says. "We need to ask hard questions."

The DA's office began doing just that at the beginning of the year. And in recent months, Underhill's circulated a draft report detailing his findings: Besides a couple of healthy programs, the county's problem-solving courts are overwhelmingly seeing less use.

According to a copy of that report, obtained via public records request, four out of six specialty courts analyzed by the DA's office are flagging.

There's the county's primary drug court, known as STOP, which the Mercury's already reported is seeing the lowest use since its vaunted launch more than two decades ago ["The Defense Rests," News, Aug 28].

And there's the START court program (short for Success Through Accountability, Restitution, and Treatment), which is aimed at people charged with property crimes who also struggle with substance abuse.

When it launched in 2010, 190 cases were placed into the program. That number has fallen each year since. Fewer than 100 came before the court in 2012.

The Deferred Sentencing Program (DSP) offers first-time domestic violence offenders an opportunity to scrub their record clean. But defense attorneys often see it as a bum deal for clients. From 325 cases in 1994, the program had just 43 cases in 2012.

The county wasn't able to break out funding streams for these courts by press time. But a review of its 2013-2014 budget suggests several of these shrinking programs received more county dollars this year.

In the last two years, the $1 million STOP program has received $35,000 more in county general fund money. The pool of money funding the START program saw a $27,000 increase in this year's budget. Funding for the domestic violence program also increased.

The county didn't immediately answer questions about the decline of the specialty courts.

"Nobody's seen it yet," spokesman Dave Austin said of the draft report.

Amid this contraction, two programs appear bustling in the DA's report.

The county's relatively new Mental Health Court, though still small, has grown nearly every year since it began in 2008.

And a diversion program that lets first-time DUII offenders skirt a conviction had an influx of more than 1,500 cases last year, with over 90 percent of eligible offenders signing up. One attorney called it "the best deal out there."

Underhill's report has the potential to raise hackles in the courthouse and beyond, but the prosecutor insists he's only trying to start a discussion.

"Let's look at things from a business perspective," he says. "The million dollar question is: Does it work? If it works, do we want to do it? What other adjustments do we make?"

That message has apparently found favor with Multnomah County Presiding Judge Nan Waller, who agreed to convene a workgroup that will study the specialty court programs, sources say. (Waller did not return two calls for comment by press time.)

Problem-solving courts can be huge money savers. A 2007 study found that STOP, the county's primary drug court, saved taxpayers nearly $9 million every year from 1991-2001. It helped curb further crimes, and cut demand for the county's precious jail beds, the report found.

Such early success—STOP was only the second drug court in the nation—inspired the courts to tinker with newer models for different offenders. Which is what's led to the current array of programs.

It's not clear whether Multnomah County offers more specialty programs than similar jurisdictions, or whether the decreased use is playing out across the country. Staffers at the Center for Court Innovation in New York, which studies specialty courts, couldn't say.

But what does emerge, in Underhill's report and in conversations with defense attorneys, are some of the reasons behind the declines.

The precipitous drop in STOP court use, for instance, partly coincides with the rise of the Expedited Plea Program, in which the same offenders are offered reduced probation—and none of that pesky, costly drug treatment—in exchange for a quick guilty plea.

"There's a disincentive," says Lane Borg, executive director of Metropolitan Public Defender Services, Oregon's largest public defense contractor. "We're building a model that says, 'Look, we're not going to do anything to these people anyway.'"

STOP in 2012 saw 140 new cases, down from nearly 600 in 1995. More than half the offenders who enter the program ultimately fail, spurring convictions.

Or take the domestic-violence-targeting DSP program, which Underhill helped get off the ground in the early 1990s and now concedes is troubled. The draft report notes defense attorneys frequently discourage participation in the program, and that it offers "low benefit for a lengthy and rigorous and high supervision program—dismissal of a misdemeanor charge."

Participants in the DSP program are far more likely to fail and be convicted than offenders who take the chance their case will be tossed out, according to the report. It's not hard to see why the offering isn't popular.

But popularity is only one part of the equation. There's also a question of whether these programs are effective for the people they do reach.

"We always have to have a resource conversation, obviously," Borg says. "But we also have to say: 'Is it doing good for a certain population?'"

That's a difficult question to get at. It's also one officials might want to scramble to answer.

As part of House Bill 3194, passed in this year's legislative session, Multnomah County will receive more than $3.1 million to spend on programs that reduce the state's prison population. If all goes as planned, even more money will be on the table in 2015.

It's an opportunity to fund highly effective programs that help troubled offenders and cut into crime rates, officials say. They just have to figure out precisely what those programs are.

"Whatever we do, we want it to work," Underhill says. "We don't have the luxury of wasting those resources."

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