Drug court

Roberto M. Esquivel | Herald-Standard

Kate McCombie, Fayette County treatment court coordinator, and Assistant District Attorney Anthony S. Iannamorelli Jr. discuss strategies for routing defendants to proper counseling and treatment. In order to establish a new drug court, McCombie will need to work with members of the criminal justice system as well as substance abuse and behavioral health professionals.

This article is part of a series of articles examining illegal drugs in Fayette County.

With two treatment courts addressing criminal behavior related to mental health and veterans’ issues, Fayette County is poised to add an additional program to put criminals with substance abuse problems on the track to a better future.

Drug courts have been operating in jurisdictions throughout the country for more than 20 years. Pennsylvania currently has drug courts in 31 counties, including neighboring Washington County. With the spike in drug use and related crimes in Fayette County in recent years and somewhat of a revolving courthouse door for the defendants who commit them, the time might be right to implement its own drug court.

For defendants whose underlying problem is substance abuse, drug court puts them under close supervision to make sure treatment goals are met to avoid continuing the drug abuse and related criminal behavior.

The person must enter a negotiated guilty plea and then spend 12 to 18 months in the intensive program, meeting with a probation officer once a month, being accountable to a judge twice a month and going for case management with treatment specialists as many times a week as necessary depending on the person.

According to the National Association of Drug Court Professionals (NADCP), drug courts have proven effective in reducing substance abuse, reducing crime, saving money, restoring lives and reuniting families.

Kate McCombie coordinates the veterans and mental health courts for Fayette County and has been working on putting together the team of specialists who will work with drug-addicted defendants to stop the cycle of negative behavior.

Some of those specialists and agencies already have been assembled to work with the existing treatment courts, but McCombie said it’s a matter of finding the appropriate team to deal strictly with the issues unique to substance abuse.

It’s painstaking work, ironing out the details of who will conduct needs assessments and which agencies are able to work with particular defendants, and then being available to see that the whole process continues smoothly.

McCombie said it’s worth it, though.

“They really do well with that structure,” McCombie said.

Seeing people make positive changes in their lives is rewarding, she said.

“I enjoy what I do. I’ve already seen (treatment court) be so successful for people, and it’s inspiring.”

Coming from a clinical background, with a master’s degree in psychology and experience working at Southwestern Pennsylvania Human Services (SPHS), McCombie said she believes in approaching the needs of participants in a holistic manner.

“We don’t assume everyone is the same,” said McCombie. “We don’t assume that every problem is the same, and we don’t assume there’s one solution that will work the same for everyone.”

A treatment court team typically consists of a judge, a prosecutor, defense counsel, counseling and treatment providers and law enforcement. The participation of the entire team is crucial.

Research from the NADCP into the success of drug courts reveals that “when any of these professional disciplines was regularly absent from team discussions, the programs tended to have outcomes that were, on average, 50 percent less favorable.”

McCombie agreed that it’s the team approach to each person’s needs that makes treatment courts successful.

“Our team is available and receptive, so people are comfortable saying, ‘This is an issue I’m dealing with,’” she said, no matter what that issue might be.

Even without a drug court in place, McCombie said the members of the Fayette County bench are all attentive to the root causes of some offenders’ behavior.

“Our team of judges right now is absolutely fantastic. They are so attentive to these issues, they ask about underlying problems and address what’s contributing to these issues.”

It’s evident in the courtroom, such as at a recent set of sentencing hearings before President Judge John F. Wagner Jr.

For example, a 31-year-old woman from Belle Vernon who pleaded guilty to drug charges related to the possession of about a gram of heroin was sentenced to 23 months of intermediate punishment, with the first 8 months to be spent on house arrest. As a condition of her probation, Wagner also ordered the woman to undergo counseling and treatment through SPHS.

A 55-year-old Fredericktown man pleaded guilty to a charge of possessing drug paraphernalia, and before sentencing him to probation, Wagner noted that it was the man’s third drug-related charge. “Is there an ongoing problem?” Wagner asked. “Do you need treatment?”

McCombie said, “We have great community programs, too.” She praised the services provided by SPHS, Chestnut Ridge and Axiom, among others, and also said the county’s new day reporting center goes a long way to help criminal defendants with substance abuse issues.

“The day reporting center is great,” said McCombie. “You get an initial needs assessment, and they’re able to decipher what the person needs, whether it’s anger management, substance abuse, mental health, or it could be job-related, like interview prepping or getting them hooked up with PIC (Private Industry Council).”

McCombie said she’s observed the successes of the treatment options currently available.

“We have an individual who just celebrated a year of being clean, and one of our participants just signed up to be in a 5k.”

“Will they get in trouble again? They may,” she said. “But they’re doing better than they have in years.”

The NADCP estimates that nationwide, drug courts are serving a fraction of the estimated 1.2 million drug-addicted people currently involved in the justice system.

“To truly break the cycle of drugs and crime in America,” the NADCP stated, “we must put a drug court within reach of every American in need.”

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