A Chemistry Experiment

The Denver Drug Court tests a formula for reclaiming addicts.

It's a bright spring afternoon, and dozens of people are gathered in the courtroom of the Denver Drug Court. One by one, they are called to a podium at the front, where the judge gives each participant a diploma and a handshake, as well as an opportunity to make a few comments.

Many people have brought their families. One forty-something Hispanic man looks at his wife and six sons in the front row -- each son dressed in his Sunday best -- and cries.

"I might be dead if it weren't for the officer who arrested me," he says. "I want to thank you for saving my family."

A girl in her twenties, with teased blond hair and nails painted hot pink, steps to the front of the courtroom to cheers and the applause of a dozen friends and relatives. She thanks God and the drug-court magistrate -- who oversees the day-to-day workings of the program -- for helping her turn her life around.

Others are in court alone and walk self-consciously to the front of the room.

"I want to thank the judge," says one man with a braided ponytail. "He's a pretty cool dude."

These people are all successful "graduates" of Denver Drug Court. They have all gone through a program that combines legal consequences for continued drug use with rehabilitation in what many say is a winning formula in the continuing struggle to deal with people charged with drug-related felonies. But the program is not without its opponents, who mainly criticize it for being too soft on drug abusers and for draining resources from other Denver courtrooms. While such criticism could jeopardize the program's future, an even bigger threat to its survival comes from continued cuts in funding for the treatment programs at the core of the drug-court philosophy.

The Denver Drug Court was started in 1994 in reponse to a flood of drug cases that threatened to overwhelm the courts. The concept was new then, with only a handful of other cities across the country sponsoring similar programs. Nationwide, courts had become so crowded with drug cases that prosecutors and public defenders agreed it would be worthwhile to try something different. The crisis had even gotten the attention of Congress, which granted federal funding to help cover start-up expenses.

In Colorado, State Public Defender David Kaplan worked with former Denver District Court judge William Meyer and Denver District Attorney Bill Ritter to create the Denver Drug Court. There was a shared belief that "small-time users are not a criminal-justice problem, but a treatment problem," says Kaplan.

"We weren't being very effective in treating the individual who needed treatment," explains Meyer. "We had them on probation, and they weren't doing well." Drug users were going through a "revolving door" in the regular court system, he says, reappearing every two years with the same problem. And because the district attorney placed a priority on prosecuting crimes involving violence, many drug cases were simply dropped.

"The serious offender who had possession of large quantities of drugs [would] be on a trial docket with cases involving murder and sexual assault," Meyer continues. "The crowded nature of the criminal-court docket didn't allow for appropriate attention to the more serious drug cases."

"People who come in with an addiction have a problem that's different than the traditional criminal problem," says Kaplan. "These are people who don't have your classic sociopath criminal profile. The question is, what's the best way to deal with it?"

Under the city's program, an individual arrested for felony possession is given the option of entering drug court, where, as long as a prosecutor is willing to exchange a deferred sentence for a guilty plea, he is ordered into treatment. Each participant also agrees to undergo regular urinalysis, and if any test shows traces of illegal drugs, the user is sentenced to a short stint in Denver County Jail. After that, he is given another chance to stay clean.

In a society that can't seem to decide if drug addiction is a medical problem or a crime, advocates say drug courts have established a needed middle ground. Today there are more than 750 such courts around the United States, including ones in Colorado's El Paso, Larimer, Montrose and Delta counties. Denver's program is by far the largest in the state: From an initial caseload of a few hundred, volume has grown to more than 2,000 cases annually.

But critics claim that the concept is failing. Liberal drug-law reformers who believe addicts need comprehensive rehab say not enough treatment is available through drug court; they point out that Colorado ranks 49th nationally in the amount of state funds devoted to treating substance abuse. Some conservatives don't want to bother with treatment at all. Drug convictions should merit prison time, they say. And some judges argue that setting up a special drug court saps needed resources, making their jobs more difficult.

Although Kaplan views the drug court as a huge improvement over past approaches to addiction, he concedes that there needs to be more emphasis on treatment. This is where reality falls short of the theory. Long waiting lists for residential treatment programs coupled with the requirement that participants pay for their own outpatient sessions creates hardships, especially for those with little or no income. Although Denver's probation department offers a limited number of vouchers to cover the expense of court-ordered treatment for those who are unable to pay, recent state budget cuts have made those vouchers even harder for offenders to come by.

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