The City of Alexandria is implementing a drug treatment court designed to provide treatment as an alternative to incarceration for individuals with significant substance abuse problems. Commonwealth's Attorney Bryan Porter estimates the program will serve roughly 10 citizens the first year.
The need is much greater, he said, with an estimate of about 50 felony drug possessions going through his office each year. "It's a tough budget year for the city and I am not asking for additional funds to begin this new program. I have asked a senior prosecutor in my office to take on the extra duties," he said.
The initiative has been a collaborative effort with a number of city agencies, including the Alexandria Department of Community and Human Services, the Alexandria Sheriff's Office, the Alexandria Police Department, the City Manager's Office, the Alexandria Circuit Court, the Alexandria Public Defender, the Office of Probation and Parole, the Alexandria Clerk of Court and Offender Aid and Restoration. Porter said they have been designing the model for Alexandria over the past year and applied to the Virginia State Court last fall for permission to initiate this program.
He said the Department of Community and Behavioral Health will be providing much of the treatment and will also be absorbing the cost. "The idea is to try to start with the funding levels we have. The Federal government has grants to address the opioid crisis, and hopefully we could get a treatment specialist as well as a civilian administrator to handle the paper flow. Then we could expand to take more citizens into the program."
The length of the program depends on the defendant who first has to be designated as high risk/high need, which means they have been diagnosed as having a substance abuse disorder that would benefit from intensive treatment. The treatment could last between 6 months to 2 years. The program includes intensive testing, treatment and therapy addressed at the underlying substance-abuse disorder.
Porter says the code section authorizing these programs has been on the books for 15 years but a fairly small number of jurisdictions have treatment courts due to lack of time and resources. But the Government Accountability Office indicates adult drug courts have been proven to be highly cost effective with an average return on investment of approximately $2-$4 for every dollar invested. This translates into economic savings for local communities of approximately $3,000 to $22,000 per participant.
"It's a win/win for everyone. The program has a high success rate for the individual who will not reoffend and can become a productive member of society. It is better for the police and sheriff who are often asked to be the primary care treaters. But this is a blunt instrument without the resources or expertise to address the myriad of complex issues associated with substance abuse. It obviously helps the court dockets and will probably reduce the caseload for my office."
It is anticipated that Alexandria's treatment court will commence operation in April or May. "It is really important for people in my position to be smart,” Porter said. “The people who go through my office have substance abuse or mental health issues or both. This new program goes hand in hand with my office's Mental Health Initiative. Citizens who commit nonviolent crimes as a result of a substance abuse disorder do not need lengthy incarcerations; instead, they need treatment and understanding so that the root cause of their problem can be addressed."
Drug Courts Can Make the Difference in Recovery
One woman's journey to the other side.
"I remember the moment, the first time I took it. I looked in the mirror and said 'what the hell are you doing?'” —Heidi Christiansen
"Heroin takes away any physical and emotional pain but it takes joy, love, family. But you are in so much pain from whatever brought you to that place that you take it anyway."
Heidi Christiansen says she is all for the new Alexandria Drug Court: "The fact that they are addressing the drug epidemic is extremely encouraging. They will need to take baby steps, to have checks and balances." She says the drug crisis is beyond epidemic; "it is a boom. They crack down on prescriptions so little old ladies in Iowa go to heroin. The drug dealer doesn't ask how many pills you have. It's cash and carry."
Christiansen was sentenced to five years for possession in Louisiana seven years ago. She entered drug court there in Baton Rouge as an alternative to jail time. "I was not extremely happy about the amount of time it takes in Phase 1 where you have three classes a week, AA meetings, three random drug tests, and an appearance before a drug court judge while holding down a full-time job.” She said, "We got tested for alcohol after every LSU game."
But she explains the program is designed so the addict can address substance abuse issues. The advantage is you are free, able to shower when you want, cook what you want to eat, and the most important, to be the primary caregiver to children. "You want drugs but there is no way to fake a screen. You are watched on camera as you give a sample."
She says drug court isn't for everyone. "Just because you need it doesn't mean you are a good candidate." Christiansen says you sit down with a drug court advocate and they ask a number of questions about your resident status, your job status, criminal history and drug history, "Then they assign you a risk assessment number. People within some certain numerical range are accepted for the program." She says in Louisiana the drug courts have a 70 percent success rate in preventing recidivism. She says Virginia is a highly conservative state where they view investments to help drug addicts as being soft on crime.
She remembers when she was in drug court she was sent to rehab for 28 days for a dirty drug screen. She was sent to a small town in Louisiana the day before Thanksgiving and got out the day before New Year’s.
After Christiansen finished drug court in Louisiana she came to the Virginia Beach area to help her cousin run a business. "I was on pain management in Louisiana due to a 17-year abusive relationship with a husband who broke a number of bones and ran over me over with a car. Virginia doesn't supply some medications in the same supply." So her cousin went and got heroin. It was available and everywhere.
"I remember the moment, the first time I took it. I looked in the mirror and said 'what the hell are you doing?' But a wave of nausea came over me and I threw up. I moved everything so I wouldn't have to look in the mirror. That was the beginning of the end. I became a heroin addict."
She says her cousin was incapable or running his company "so I turned to alternate methods of income contrary to the law. "If you live at-risk lifestyle you will some into contact with law enforcement."
Christiansen was arrested for possession in both Chesapeake and Virginia Beach but put on probation in both jurisdictions. "I have three possession charges in the state and I have never possessed a drug. I was arrested for drug paraphernalia, which is a felony in Virginia but not in Louisiana where it is a misdemeanor. It's how the system here gets so clogged up. It will be a mess in the beginning.
"I knew I was going to have a dirty drug screen so I evaded parole and they found me and I got incarcerated for 17 months on March 31, 2016. I was able to get on the other side. It fixed me. I never want to do heroin again.”
Now Christiansen works at Guest House in Del Ray where she graduated from their six-month residential program and is in the nine-month after-care program as well as Independent Living in the City of Alexandria. She works on development for Guest House, the speaker's bureau and fundraising. Guest House is a six-month residential program for non-violent drug offenders.
"I am better than I have ever been." She is looking forward to celebrating her granddaughter's first birthday in Baton Rouge, "an invitation I wouldn't have if I'd been using."