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.

"Drug court is not able to meet its mission," says Christie Donner, coordinator of the Colorado Criminal Justice Reform Coalition. "The treatment dollars aren't there. Without those dollars, all it is is an expedited court process. We call drug court the slow road to prison."

That may not be a bad thing, say some hard-liners.

"I think cold turkey should be a hell of a good lesson," says Denver City Councilman Ted Hackworth. "It's a question of whether we should pamper them or take strong action that lets them know they shouldn't be involved in drugs. I think drug court tends to pamper them."

Local judges are concerned that this special court strains an overworked system. In Denver's Second District Court, seven judges handle criminal cases, including one -- Judge Paul Markson -- who has worked full-time in drug court for the past two years. Typically, judges are rotated every few years into drug court. If any of the justices balk at serving, it could revive a move to scrap the program. Should that happen, Markson says, all twenty district-court judges will have to decide the future of drug court.

"We make those decisions as a group," says Markson, a strong supporter of drug court, who adds that it would be inappropriate for him to comment on the attitudes of the other judges toward his court.

However, others have made their feelings known. Denver District Court Chief Judge J. Stephen Phillips contends that many of his colleagues resent the diversion of resources into drug court. "If we didn't have a drug-court judge, we could use that judge to lighten the load on the other judges," says Phillips.

Most Denver judges agree with the idea of diverting drug offenders into treatment programs, but they question the value of having one courtroom solely devoted to drug crimes. Even if drug court is eliminated, Phillips says, district court would try to maintain much of the drug-court system, including regular testing and counseling. But instead of one judge supervising all of the drug cases, they would be split up among the seven district-court judges who handle criminal cases.

"The judges are saying what resources we do have should go into working with people in the therapy process. The discussion is where the emphasis should be," says Phillips, before pronouncing this verdict: "Drug court is destined for restructuring at some point."

At least one local judge also raises a philosophical objection to drug court. In a paper published in the June 2000 issue of the North Carolina Law Review, Denver District Court Judge Morris Hoffman criticizes the entire premise of drug court, arguing that it is "fundamentally unprincipled."

"By simultaneously treating drug use as a crime and as a disease, without coming to grips with the inherent contradictions of those two approaches, drug courts are not satisfying either the legitimate and compassionate interests of the treatment community or the legitimate and rational interests of the law enforcement community. They are, instead, simply enabling our continued national schizophrenia about drugs," wrote Hoffman.

District Attorney Ritter doesn't disguise his annoyance with criticisms of the court: "I'm not saying drug court is perfect, but it's better than anything else out there. It's certainly better than anything the naysayers on the district court have come up with."

Likewise, Meyer has defended the cause and written a paper arguing that the courts are in a unique position to both encourage treatment and impose sanctions for those who won't give up drugs.

"It is uneconomical, unjust, and inefficient to routinely handle drug offenders through the traditional criminal justice process" wrote Meyer. "Albert Einstein observed: 'Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.' Drug courts were established to find a way to stop doing things the old way, over and over again."

Meyer believes that many of his former colleagues are uncomfortable with the role a judge plays in drug court. "A drug-court judge doesn't do trials; he takes pleas and imposes sanctions and rewards," says Meyer. "Some people believe that's social work."

Denver's drug court has had some success in reducing the rate of second arrests for addicts. According to a study commissioned by the Colorado Judicial Department, 13 percent of drug-court graduates are arrested again within one year versus 17 percent of drug users who go through the regular court system. The study found that drug court tended to be more successful with older drug users. That 4 percent reduction in new arrests, while seemingly small, is important, insists Ritter.

"That's 92 offenders a year not getting sent to the department of corrections at $25,000 per bed," he says. "Having that kind of reduction is significant. Look at the human side of this. That's a significant number of people whose lives have changed."

(Despite the ideological debate, there is some evidence that drug court may actually save money. A study released this summer by the Colorado Judicial Department estimated that the Denver Drug Court, funded primarily by the state, costs $609,634 a year to operate, somewhat less than the $630,708 required to keep a traditional courtroom running. The court also receives some city funding for five full-time positions.)

Meyer says drug court's modest success in reducing recidivism can be improved upon as more is learned about what it takes to change drug addicts' behavior.

"There are a lot of things I would do differently now than when I was on the bench," he says. "I think we know more about assessment and drug testing, and we know more about the chemistry of the brain and why people have drug cravings."

Drug addicts require repeated treatment to finally kick their habits, says Meyer, noting that "most...national studies have indicated that treatment is most effective if it lasts at least a year." That said, he has also seen many addicts make great progress after going through a two-week "detox" program at Arapahoe House, one of the best-known treatment agencies, with sites throughout the metro area. "I saw remarkable changes in individuals from that fourteen-day program," he says.

Keeping a balance between treatment and punishment is crucial, says Adam Brickner, director of the Mayor's Office of Drug Strategy, which was formed in 2000 to coordinate drug policy here.

"There are meaningful sanctions. You do it to let people know their behavior is inappropriate," Brickner says. "You have to make the sting of the sanctions strong enough to impact their behavior."

But, he adds, the threat of punishment has to go hand in hand with affordable treatment for addicts: "Addiction is a chronic disease people need help controlling. It takes about 24 months to learn the behavior they need to learn. Addicts have relapses; it's not like taking aspirin for a headache. People think a drug addict goes to treatment for six weeks and they're cured, but it's an ongoing process. Look what people go through to quit smoking."


Rather than increase funding for much-needed drug treatment and rehabilitation, the state is now slashing it.

Colorado already ranks next to last in the nation in the amount of state funding it doles out for drug and alcohol treatment. According to a 2001 study by the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse, we spend less than neighboring states with far smaller populations, such as New Mexico and Wyoming. For instance, while Colorado spent $548,000 on prevention and treatment programs in 1998, New Mexico spent $11,005,000 and Wyoming spent $2,790,000. The NCASA estimated that for every $99 Colorado spends dealing with the consequences of drug addiction (child abuse, domestic violence, hospital admissions, incarceration, etc.), it earmarks just six cents for treatment. Furthermore, most of the money the state does distribute for treatment programs is actually federal funding.

The result of this tight-fistedness is a serious shortage of residential treatment slots and very little free or low-cost counseling.

"It's a severe detriment to comprehensive treatment in Colorado," says Slavia Lewis, executive director of the Mile High Council on Alcoholism and Drug Abuse. "We can't give the best care to people when there isn't funding."

Lewis says her agency receives no state funds. People walking in the door from drug court are expected to pay for the classes and group discussions they must attend, and for many of them, coming up with the $25 fee is a hardship, especially if they can't find work.

"So many people are looking for work, and employers want to hire people without criminal records," says Lewis. "This makes it really hard to place people in jobs."

Without adequate funding, Lewis must also struggle to retain staff.

"In the substance-abuse arena, there is high turnover," she says. "Unfortunately, we do lose people to the for-profit world."

Colorado's economic slump has led to cutbacks in the already meager state funding for treatment. Recently, Governor Bill Owens eliminated the Tony Grampsas Youth Services Program, which provided funding for programs that helped at-risk minors, including those with drug addictions. One of the agencies hurt by those cuts is the Spot, a downtown Denver refuge for runaway teens.

"That was a very difficult decision for the governor," says his spokesman, Dan Hopkins. "Revenues to the state are down 15 percent. The money simply wasn't there for that program."

It's a pattern that's all too common, say advocates for rehab.

"In these hard economic times, one of the first things cut are treatment slots," says Brickner.

Owens has taken a strong stand against the idea of diverting drug offenders into treatment. In June the governor vetoed a bill sponsored by state senator Ken Gordon of Denver that would have reduced prison sentences for possession of less than a gram of certain drugs and would have used the savings for additional treatment programs ("The Shifting Drug War," November 22, 2001). That bill had passed the Republican-controlled house on a 61-4 vote, but Owens still killed it, saying he wouldn't approve a bill "that will put more criminals on our streets."

Even as the political debate continues over spending, drug and alcohol abuse is growing in the state. A recent study commissioned by the city found that Denver's drug-related death rate was 50 percent higher than the national average, while binge drinking, drug-related hospital emergencies and use of illicit drugs were also well above the norm. That study (called "On the Horizon" and issued by Brickner's office) also found that per capita alcohol consumption is rising in Colorado, along with alcohol-related hospitalization, which is 35 per 10,000 residents -- double the national average. The number of drug-related deaths in Denver has surged as well, going from 72 in 1996 to 123 in 2000.

Brickner's office estimates that in Denver alone, only 7,000 of the more than 45,000 people who need treatment for substance abuse, receive any kind of treatment. Another recent study, by the state Alcohol and Drug Abuse Division, estimated that 250,000 Coloradans have serious substance-abuse problems. Even middle-class people with health insurance often find that insurers refuse to pay for drug and alcohol counseling.

"Treatment is grossly underfunded, and yet we rank in the top ten states for substance abuse," says Carmelita Muniz, director of the Colorado Association of Alcohol and Drug Service Providers.

Even those with multiple arrests for drug possession often go without help. Last year, a state report found that the most hard-core drug addicts in the criminal-justice system were also the most likely not to receive needed treatment. For example, only about a third of the drug addicts needing a residential treatment program were able to get into one.

Statistics like these -- and Colorado's seeming inability to do much to overcome them -- have driven Muniz and other activists to consider some kind of ballot initiative to boost funding for treatment programs in Colorado. While no decision has been made on whether to go to the ballot in 2004, a group has been meeting to look at possible sources of funding.

One target may be the state's current excise tax on liquor, which legislators approved in 1973 with the claim that most of the money would be used to fund alcoholism counseling. Instead that money -- about $30 million per year -- goes into the general fund. Muniz says asking voters to mandate that the money go into drug and alcohol treatment is one option her group is looking at.


With resources as strained as they are, proponents of Denver's drug court say they are doing the best they can. They believe strongly in the program, and they point proudly to individual success stories such as those in evidence at the recent graduation ceremony. Brickner says this is where the drug-court experiment truly shines.

"If you look at people's before-and-after mug shots, they look so much healthier; they gain weight, and their skin is clear," he says. "It really makes a difference."

As befits any commencement ceremony, a sheet cake and fruit punch are served once the diplomas are given out and recipients mingle with friends and family members. But the unusual nature of the graduation is highlighted when the audience is reminded of a Tuesday-night "after-care" program for graduates.

Then Assistant District Attorney Greg Long takes the podium. After offering his congratulations, he shares the story of his own battle with alcoholism and eventual treatment at St. Luke's Hospital.

"Lots of people here are now contributing members of the community because of the chance offered here," says Long. "Nobody outside this system has any idea what you've gone through to get here."

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