The Defense Rests 

Multnomah County's Prized Drug Court Is Flagging; No One Knows Why

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MULTNOMAH COUNTY'S drug court used to save you a lot of money.

Targeted and strict, the program cuts recidivism in its participants and slashes the need for beds in the overcrowded Multnomah County Justice Center. According to a 2007 study, the so-called Sanctions Treatment Opportunity Progress (STOP) program saved us nearly $9 million a year from 1991-2001. Few jewels in the county's justice system shine as brightly.

But that glimmer has faded, somewhat. The STOP court, it appears, is being used less than at any other point in its celebrated 22-year history.

According to numbers provided by the county's Department of Community Justice (DCJ), the program has seen declines in its rolls in the last several years, dropping to 75 percent of capacity in fiscal 2013. And data compiled by the Multnomah County District Attorney's Office suggests the slide is far more pronounced—from regular yearly enrollment of more than 400 new participants in the 1990s to just 140 in 2012, apparently the lowest since at least 1994.

The reasons are unclear, but weakened consequences and the creation of other, easier options likely have some people thumbing their nose at the offering, attorneys and justice officials say.

At the same time, the STOP program received more than $10,000 in extra funding this year—money that could have bolstered the county's other social services efforts, but may instead sit unused.

"It's unfortunate," says Rick Berman, a consultant with Volunteers of America Oregon who directed STOP's counseling services from 2008 to 2011. "Any time fewer people have access to treatment, it's definitely not a good thing."

The STOP court is fairly intense, offering reduced penalties for drug possession felonies if participants can successfully complete at least a year of random drug tests and regular check-ins with counselors, judges, and attorneys. Completing the program can result in having some charges dismissed with prejudice.

The results have been touted often. According to the 2007 study, defendants who completed the STOP program were 30 percent less likely to re-offend than eligible defendants who passed up the opportunity. A hefty majority of participants report their lives have improved through the program.

And then there’s the money. Beyond cash saved in freed-up jail space, and in preventing further prosecutions, the study found the program also operates more efficiently than run-of-the-mill court process, costing almost $1,400 less per defendant.

"We've had incredible success," says Multnomah County Circuit Court Judge Angel Lopez, who presided over the court from 2010 to December 2012. "We've changed people's lives."

But STOP is changing fewer lives than ever. No one affiliated with the program quite agrees on why, but the trend clearly hinges on shifts in drug defendants' attitudes.

"The thing about drug court is it's being offered relatively quickly after a person's been charged," says Jeff Lowe, a deputy district attorney who's worked drug cases for the past 10 years. "Sometimes it takes some time for reality to set in."

One huge factor: It's often easier to snub the program than to undergo stringent treatment. The maximum amount of jail time for a first-time felony conviction for possession is 10 days and probation, Lopez says. But with the Multnomah County Sheriff's Office already releasing record amounts of inmates because of overcrowding, defendants might not get even that.

And for people ready to admit their guilt and willing to take a conviction, the county has a much easier option than STOP. The Expedited Plea Program, known as X-Plea, offers offenders reduced probation if they'll cop to a crime shortly after they're charged.

"It's basically a 'get out of jail quick' card," says Lopez. "Within 72 hours of being arrested you're back on the street with probation."

Public defenders, meanwhile, point out the court is limiting itself by working only with drug felons.

"If they want more people in STOP, they can control it," says Chris O'Connor, an attorney at Metropolitan Public Defender Services, Inc. "They can make misdemeanors eligible."

The drug court's decline is perhaps not merely due to a lack of interest. In the years since STOP became the second program of its kind in the country, Multnomah County has introduced a variety of other "specialty courts" aimed at offering defendants treatment. There are now courts for mentally ill defendants and drunk drivers and people who commit property crimes.

Participation is down in some of those programs, too. But they may also siphon away people who, in the past, might have enrolled in drug court, says Scott Taylor, DCJ's executive director.

Despite declining use, the county upped its contributions to STOP over the past two years by almost $35,000. This year, the program is budgeted to serve 600 people. It served fewer than 500 last year, according to numbers from the DCJ.

"We put a budget in, and then if we don't use that budget it goes back to the general fund," Taylor says. "Whether we're as brilliant at it as some might wish, I can't say."

Whatever the reasons, the decline in the county's specialty courts has begun to register concern in the courthouse.

Earlier this year, Multnomah County District Attorney Rod Underhill asked his staff to compile numbers showing specialty court participation. And although he wouldn’t share the forthcoming report, he says the data largely suggests widespread decreases in use.

"We need to look at this and determine whether we've watered this down," Underhill says.

That effort will be helped by the passage this year of House Bill 3194, which will give Multnomah County justice officials roughly $4 million over the next two years to experiment with programs that reduce Oregon's prison population.

Part of the push, officials say, might be to fine-tune STOP and similar courts—perhaps making the criteria for who qualifies less dependent on criminal charges and more focused on other factors.

But such changes, even at their most successful, would ensure only that the right people are offered help. It won't make them accept it.

As Taylor puts it: "Treatment is only effective when the individual is ready to make some changes." 

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