Court in Crisis Without funding, Virginia's drug courts could crumble. 

Their supporters are fighting for a program they insist cuts crime and saves lives.

She describes what could happen: crime spikes, criminal court dockets pile up, overcrowded jails see an influx of inmates, the need arises for more substance-abuse services. Even more important, she says, is the damage that eliminating drug courts could cause the myriad people she has ordered to come clean.

Because of a $19 million budget shortfall, the General Assembly earlier this month stripped $2.6 million in funds used to establish 13 drug courts throughout the state and put the money into its general fund. That money — in Richmond's case, $308,000 — comes from Intensified Drug Enforcement Jurisdiction Assistance (IDEA) funds, not revenue funds. Simply put, the funds are generated by court fines and fees that until now had, as specified by statute 5.2-1715 of the Code of Virginia, been reserved for localities to enhance drug-control efforts.

Without the money, Richmond's Adult Drug Court could "cease to exist," Spencer says, as soon as the new state budget takes effect July 1. Now Spencer and her colleagues with the Richmond Adult Drug Court, along with its participants, are fighting to save a program they say is small and effective. Even drug court's strongest advocates acknowledge that not every addict succeeds.

Yet since the city took over administering Richmond's Adult Drug Court in September 2000, 17 addicts have quit using drugs and have graduated. That number may seem small. It multiplies when you consider that 63 participants currently are practicing — or attempting to practice — sobriety now, sobriety forever.

Judge Margaret P. Spencer says threats of funding cuts to the Adult Drug Court could have a direct effect on people who need help. Drug courts give nonviolent offenders whose crimes are linked to substance abuse a chance to get treatment instead of jail time. Most are repeat felony offenders who have broken probation or committed another crime as the result of their drug addiction. A substance-abuse clinician, a probation officer and Judge Spencer closely monitor a participant's progress. Group therapy and random drug testing are required. Sanctions like brief periods of incarceration or increased supervision are imposed when rules aren't followed. Incredibly, most of the time they are.

Drug courts, supporters say, are proof that alternative-sentencing methods can cut crime by arresting the cycle that keeps some lawbreakers in business. Drug-court advocates point out simple economics: The average cost to incarcerate an adult in Virginia is $39,600 a year; the cost to put an offender through a drug-court program is about $4,000 a year.

Likewise, according to a statewide survey, the recidivism rate (felony re-convictions) for Virginia's drug-court graduates is between 3 percent and 7 percent; the recidivism rate for Virginia's drug offenders sentenced to jail, prison or probation is 50 percent. But numbers don't tell everything.

On a recent Wednesday morning, Chief Judge Spencer sits in the Richmond Adult Drug Court conference room rifling through papers that help make her case. She's quickly joined by six members of the drug-court team: Aaron Evans, assistant drug-court coordinator; Madeline Berry, substance-abuse clinician; Michael Hanrahan, substance-abuse clinician; April Smith, administrative manager; Mark Hairston, probation officer; and Gloria Jones, drug-court coordinator. Remarkably, in a field known for its high turnover, the same seven people Style interviewed for a cover story on Richmond's Adult Drug Court nearly two years ago are here today.

Their commitment to the program is as unflinching now as it was then. Perhaps more so. But the uniform expression on their faces seems to have changed from one of anticipation to one of grave concern. It is easy to see why. Come July, there's a chance everyone here, with the exception of Spencer, could lose their regular paycheck.

Still, "We aren't concerned about our jobs but about the participants," Jones says. "A number of them are very dependent on the program." Hanrahan cites a man who had never held a job or stayed clean before drug court. He graduated in December. But on his own, says Hanrahan, the man realized he still needed support.

He returns to the drug-court offices above the Food Court at 6th Street Marketplace whenever he feels he needs it. "We thought we'd never see him again," says Evans. Without drug court, the group says, each member nodding in agreement, he'd likely relapse.

The group hopes such stories will help save the program. Smith places dozens of copies of letters from drug-court participants on the conference-room table. They are being sent to Gov. Mark Warner.

In April Warner will begin his veto session, and there's a chance he could reinstate funds for drug courts, Spencer says. But the group isn't counting on it. Ellen Qualls, press secretary for Gov. Warner, says the governor is looking into the matter and gathering information before he makes a decision. Warner has line-item veto power over the budget. Whatever changes he makes must be done by midnight on April 8.

"Public funding is scarce and the city can't help us," Spencer says, citing the city's budget woes. "We are making every effort to come up with the funding … and we have to look at every available alternative."

For example, federal grant money could become available through other departments such as the Commonwealth Attorney's Office or the Richmond Police Department. Spencer plans to ask for help from officials in both agencies. She also hopes to attract contributions from corporations and the Chamber of Commerce.

The process, however, takes time — time that is running out.

To have the drug court dissolve July 1 and then have to start over once funding is in place would be excessively costly, she says. Resources and equipment would be lost. And an interruption could trigger mistrust among drug-court participants, Spencer says.

"Drug-court programs have produced a high level of trust in the judicial system, in law enforcement," she says. "And not just for participants but for their families." Without them, Evans predicts: "I think they'll have a real hard time."

Angelique Walker, 30, knows the hard times. She spent five months in the Richmond City Jail in 2000 for grand-theft auto. She was messed up on heroin when she committed her crime. It wasn't the first. Her sentence was suspended while she went through an inpatient drug rehab program. After that, she spent a year in the drug-court program. Walker graduated in January.

"I didn't know how to get back to the life I knew beforehand. But I knew it was possible," Walker says. "The main thing they teach you in drug court is not to lie."

Walker says she stopped lying to herself and to others about her addiction. "I was completely willing to do whatever they suggested because I needed rehabilitation," she confesses. Today, she says, she's on her way. Walker is back in school at Virginia Commonwealth University. She's studying psychology. One day she hopes to work with children whose parents are drug addicts.

She says second chances are important. "I think there will be a lot of people who won't have an opportunity to relive their lives" if drug court dies, Walker says. Her conviction sounds poignantly real. "I was in jeopardy. Drug court gave me back my life." S


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