Three years ago, Billy, a good-looking and sharply intelligent musician, was busted along the Willamette River for heroin possession. Only several months earlier, Billy had hopped a Greyhound bus to flee San Francisco and his overwhelming habit.
Facing a Multnomah County judge, he was given an option: Trade in jail time for rehab, promise to stop using, and take periodic urine tests. But Billy decided to go with the traditional penal system and take his 20 days in a local jail.
However, after another bust a year or so later, Billy decided to give the drug courts a whirl. A friend had worked his way through the program, making routine appearances in front of a judge to talk about his progress or any stumbles towards sobriety. His friend had successfully kicked his habit; Billy decided to take the option.
Last month, Billy "graduated" from Multnomah County's drug court, and his life has become the reverse image of junkies who commonly lose job, home, and family: He's engaged, his band, Sugar Pussy, is rising in the local music scene, and he talks about buying a home.
"It's a beautiful thing," he said, "I'm blessed that I did my crime in Oregon and not Phoenix or someplace else, because I'd probably be doing time."
In 1991, Multnomah County became the second court in the country to implement the concept of drug courts. (A year earlier, Janet Reno, then-Attorney General of Florida, rolled out the protocol in Dade County, Florida.) At a time when unflinching, get-tough-on-crime stances were politically suave, drug courts had a snowball's chance for success. Remarkably, not only have they weathered naysayers, but their numbers have skyrocketed. (In Oregon, a dozen counties have similar programs.)
But, in spite of the drug courts' string of successes, they have been perpetually vulnerable to budget cuts. Valerie Moore, executive director for InAct, one of the rehab programs that contracts with Multnomah County's drug court, claims that in three out of the past four years drug courts have been on the chopping block for budget reasons.
However, in the final weeks of this legislative session, a bill that may finally steal the drug courts against political whims and shrinking budgets is chugging its way through the capital. Under the wily proposal--a sort of karmic equation--money from forfeitures in drug busts would help pay bills for the state's drug courts. Every year, law enforcement agents seize tens of thousands in cash and cars from drug dealers; under Senate Bill 914, this money would be cycled back to pay for users' rehab in the drug courts. So far, the bill has trudged through committees and is waiting for a vote in the House.
"This will bring stability to the program," says Moore, who is hopeful for SB 914's chances. Final vote is expected soon.