Author: The PLS Reporter/Friday, March 28, 2014/Categories: News and Views


By Jason Gottesman

Over the course of the past year, the House Judiciary Committee held hearings across Pennsylvania learning about how the heroin epidemic facing Pennsylvania communities can and should be addressed.

On Monday, the fourth such hearing will be held by the committee’s Subcommittee on Crime and Corrections and will give the members the opportunity learn about drug courts, see the impact the courts have made, and to determine their effectiveness.

What are drug courts?

Drug courts are specialty courts within the regular judiciary at the Court of Common Pleas level. Programs are separately funded at the county level. The idea behind this and other specialty courts is that they provide a single source, continuity of care, and in-house expertise on their particular issue. The hope is, in these courts, diversionary programs with monitoring can be used as an alternative to jail time

Karen Blackburn of the Administrative Office of the Pennsylvania Courts (AOPC) explains currently there are 28 adult drug courts in Pennsylvania and nine juvenile drug courts. Somerset County is the only county with a juvenile drug court and no adult drug court.

“You look at the addicted individual, you look at the person who has been assessed as addicted to a drug, including alcohol, and that addiction contributed to the criminal behavior. Through treatment, they can recover from that addiction and learn to manage it and no longer be a threat to society,” Blackburn explained. “That’s what drug courts are all about, breaking that cycle of addiction and crime and jail and addiction and crime and jail. We know that about 85 percent of the folks that come in contact with the justice system for criminal offenses are drug involved.”

How did the heroin problem get to be so bad?

“The prescription drug problem is what has given rise to the heroin problem,” explains Drug and Alcohol Programs (DDAP) Secretary Gary Tennis. “The vast majority of those getting addicted to heroin today are starting out with prescription opioids and they’re getting addicted to them because they were legitimately prescribed by a doctor—maybe over-prescribed—or maybe a young person stealing them out of a medicine cabinet from unused medicine.”

“We’ve seen it’s a multifaceted problem. We’ve seen also that there’s a lot of demand for law enforcement. It’s also a health care problem, a social problem, and in many cases a family problem,” said House Judiciary Committee Chairman Ron Marsico (R-Dauphin) in reflecting on the committee’s prior hearings on the heroin epidemic.

How can drug courts help?

“Nationally, the research shows if you do treatment, and you do it with clinical integrity—that’s a critical issue—you can reduce recidivism by two-thirds,” Sec. Tennis said. “In Pennsylvania, with our restrictive intermediate punishment program, which is often combined with the drug court; it’s a diversion from a long stay in county jail or a short stay in the state prison system. If you convert it to treatment, the recidivism rates for those individuals two years after completing—which is a national timetable—is sixteen percent. Those are the best numbers I’ve seen.”

He called restrictive intermediate punishment the best treatment diversion program in the country, mostly due to the work of the Pennsylvania Commission on Crime and Delinquency ensuring clinical integrity in the treatment where a thorough assessment of the individual is done by an experienced clinician to judge the severity and progression of the addiction.

The positive work of drug courts is dependent on the amount of treatment they can mandate.

“Drug courts are not an alternative to addressing the heroin problem,” argued Deb Beck of the Drug and Alcohol Service Providers of Pennsylvania. “If you go to drug court, you need to go to treatment also. What drug courts can do is compel you to go to treatment if you are not inclined to follow through.”

“The problem is, we are very limited in our ability to provide treatment,” Beck lamented.

The level of any treatment to be provided, after an assessment with clinical integrity, is determined through the Pennsylvania Client Placement Criteria. Treatment can range from outpatient care to intensive inpatient care with many months of follow up outpatient care and counseling with supervision.

“What level of treatment they get really depends on how severe the addiction is. It really should be a clinical decision,” Sec. Tennis noted.

While not every county has a drug court, the hearing will provide an opportunity for members to hear about the effectiveness of the courts by hearing from members of the judiciary and graduates from drug court programs.

What else can be done?

Though drug courts help break the cycle of addiction on the back end, there is also work being done on the front end to prevent heroin and drug use.

“One of the things we’re trying to do is bring awareness to the issue,” Chairman Marsico said of the series of hearings. “That’s important. That’s been one of our priorities since we began these hearings across the Commonwealth.”

He believes education and awareness of the issue, coupled with proposals like prescription drug monitoring legislation moving through the General Assembly, are key to front-end efforts to prevent heroin use.

Sec. Tennis agreed, noting DDAP funds both prevention and treatment. He said the best way to prevent drug use is to work on changing the culture by equipping parents to properly educate their children, providing young adolescents with life skills training, and providing targeted programs focusing on at risk children.

The hearing is scheduled for 10:00 a.m. and will be held in Room G-50 of the Irvis Office Building.