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A drug court for Tacoma’s veterans

Post by Patrick O'Callahan on Nov. 9, 2009 at 7:46 pm |
November 9, 2009 5:48 pm

This editorial will appear in tomorrow’s print edition.

Drug court is one of the best ideas ever to hit Pierce County’s criminal justice system. It’s just been joined by another great idea: veterans drug court.

The county’s drug court – one of the nation’s first, in 1994 – operates on the premise that treating addicts instead of merely jailing them works better for everyone. Substance-abusers accused of drug- or alcohol-connected crimes – small-time trafficking, theft, drunk driving, for example – must voluntarily opt in. They waive their right to a trial and accept the maximum sentence for their offense.

The sentence is then suspended on condition they follow a strict regimen designed to break their addiction: treatment, participation in group meetings, random urine tests, avoidance of any criminal activity. The Pierce County Alliance runs the treatment side of things.

If they fail, they get the book thrown at them. If they succeed, the charge is dismissed. Studies have shown the program to be much more effective than jail in preventing relapses and further crimes, and saving the taxpayers’ money.

The veterans’ drug court, announced last week, is being launched with the help of a three-year, $900,000 grant from the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Administration. The new program will be able to tap into the treatment and health resources of the Department of Veterans Affairs.

When it opens early next year, it will operate in precisely the same way as existing drug court – but with an additional focus on problems that may have arisen from military service. One RAND study found that 25 to 30 percent of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans report symptoms of psychological disorder, mild or severe. Post-traumatic stress disorder and depression are all too common among troops who’ve seen combat.

Only a fraction of veterans wind up abusing alcohol or drugs, but it’s a fraction that deserves special attention. These are people who have put their bodies between America and its enemies.

Judge Gary Steiner, who presides over the existing drug court, is a Vietnam veteran himself and an excellent choice to lead this expansion. “If you’ve been there,” he says, “you have some kind of idea what they’ve gone through.”

Roughly 4,400 veterans were booked into the Pierce County jail last year, many presumably for crimes fueled by alcoholism or drug addiction. Freeing some of them from the tangle of crime and substance abuse could take an expensive burden off the criminal justice system.

Veterans drug court is almost brand new: It’s been pioneered in Rochester and Buffalo, N.Y., over the last three years, and Pierce County is one of the first jurisdictions in the nation to get federal funding to expand the program.

With the estimated 95,000 veterans who live the county, this is an ideal place for the expansion to begin.

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