Oklahoma officials call for expanding drug court

Monday, February 20th 2006, 10:02 am
By: News On 6

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) _ Legal officials and treatment providers are calling for expansion of drug courts that give some offenders the option of treatment for their addiction instead of jail.

Prosecutors say the courts provide rehabilitation that will keep drug offenders from reappearing in the court system and to detractors, who sometimes call drug court ``hugs for thugs,'' they insist it is not soft on crime but prevents crime.

``People who complete our drug court program deserve to have their case dismissed,'' Oklahoma County Assistant District Attorney Steve Deutsch said. ``It's a living hell.''

Ben Brown, deputy commissioner of the Oklahoma Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services, said a $16 million investment by the state for drug courts would expand 20 operational drug courts, start nine new courts and serve half the drug court-eligible offenders now in prison.

Brown said the savings are obvious _ a cost of $5,000 per offender per year versus more than $16,000 a year for prison.

Jeff Yowell, the Oklahoma County drug court coordinator, said the administrative costs for drug court are more than $435,000 and that does not include the cost of treatment for the people in the program. He said all the money comes from the state and federal government.

The defendants' costs vary. Yowell said each person pays a $10 user fee and $17 for each drug screening, which are done up to eight times a month. He said the treatment copayment ranges from $400 to $1,000.

Supporters point to success stories like Leslie Ames of Oklahoma City.

Ames, 37, said she spent eight years in prison, but that did not stop her from using drugs when she was released and she was arrested in 2003 for possession of crack cocaine.

She worked out a deal with prosecutors to enter the drug court program and at a recent drug court hearing Ames walked to the front of the room and yelled ``558.''

The number is the days she has remained sober and those in the courtroom cheered.

``I played the program when I go into it,'' Ames said. ``I thought I could get away with using. After a 25-year history of drug addiction, drug court has given me the opportunity to change my life and get along in society.''

But not everyone is a success Deutsch admits.

``If we reach four out of 10 then we qualify that as a success,'' Deutsch said.

``Those people will not be back in the system. If they are willing to rehabilitate themselves and not be a burden on society, then society will benefit.''