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Drug Court Turns One

But future funding for pilot program is uncertain.

Robert stood before the two judges in the Loudoun County Circuit Court and spoke with pride: he'd been clean for 11 months.

He's one of eight participants in Loudoun's first drug court, which was celebrating its first year anniversary. Robert is off drugs, about to buy a home in Lovettsville and likely to be one of the drug court's first graduates.

Now, "I look at the way things could be, not the way things were," Robert said. "I've turned my life around."

Loudoun County Circuit Court judges Bruce McCahill and Thomas Horne each vigorously shook Robert's hand and gave him a diploma honoring his passage of the drug court's third of four phases.

Loudoun's drug court, completing its first year, is facing a challenge: how and when to expand. As a pilot program, the drug court exists on current resources. The county approved $324,000 in funding for it in the 2006 budget, but Commonwealth's Attorney James Plowman froze the money.

"I still have a lot of unanswered questions," Plowman, who attended the one-year anniversary celebration, said. "We haven't seen the results of this program yet. It's an expensive endeavor."

THE DRUG COURT works because it changes the courtroom dynamic, Horne said.

"The traditional approach is the adversarial position with the judge and jury deciding issues," he said.

Instead, Horne and McCahill greeted drug court participants warmly as each gave a weekly update. They praised the participants' achievements — holding a job, for example, or completing one of the drug court's phases — and gently chastised them if an expectation hadn't been met.

"You have that wonderful smile. It makes me happy," Horne told one participant.

He told another, "The centerpiece of this whole thing is honesty. If you take on a commitment, honor it. That's being honest with yourself."

In order to be eligible for the drug court, a person must be alcohol or drug dependent and have a felony conviction as well as a probation violation due to his or her dependency.

Once in the program, participants attend group meetings, work closely with probation officers and drug court administrators to lose their addictions as well as hold jobs and become tax-paying, contributing members of society.

Violations, such as failing a drug screening or being late for a meeting, result in jail time.

Participants pay for the program based on an individual timetable.

The goal is twofold: release the participants from their dependencies and prevent their returning to jail.

IT'S TOO early to have solid recidivism information on Loudoun's drug court participants, but a 2003 national study of the United States' 1,600 drug courts says that it's more effective at keeping drug users out of jail than traditional court.

After three years, 27 percent of drug court graduates returned to jail, while 58 percent of offenders who didn't participate did return to jail, said Addison "Tad" Davis IV, assistant director of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy.

Davis praised the Loudoun drug court's first-year achievements and voiced the federal commitment to the program: this year, President George Bush has recommended handing out $70 million in grants to drug courts nationwide, a $30 million increase from last year.

Still, Davis said, the drug court saves taxpayers' money.

"The cost of an individual going through the drug court is about one-eighth or one-tenth the cost of an individual instead being incarcerated, he said.

But Plowman still isn't convinced the drug court needs to expand just yet. Without further funding, the court can still handle two more participants for a total of 10.

"It doesn't seem like we're under any kind of pressure or time constraints," he said.

Plowman and judges Horne and McCahill must agree to admit a new participant. The three have been meeting to discuss the drug court's future, but no decision has been made.

Horne has watched the current crop of participants go from drug- or alcohol-dependent criminals to functioning, working residents of Loudoun County.

"I would love to see more people brought into the program," he said. "The pace of growth is something we can't determine at this point."