PRINCETON -– The Southern Region Drug Court Program that has previously served only Mercer County is expanding to serve McDowell, Monroe, Summers, and Wyoming Counties.

Supreme Court Chief Justice Brent D. Benjamin signed an Administrative Order on Feb. 6 expanding the Drug Court's service area from solely the Ninth Judicial Circuit to also encompass the Eighth, Twenty-Seventh, and Thirty-First Judicial Circuits.

Benjamin said the programs "take people whose lives are in a negative cycle and turn them into productive citizens."

As a judge, attending a drug court graduation and seeing drug-free infants who had been born to women who have gone through the programs is a moving experience.

"That is a wonderful thing as a judge to be able to do," Chief Justice Benjamin said.

Ninth Judicial Circuit Judges Derek C. Swope, William J. Sadler, and Omar J. Aboulhosn will be assigned for special temporary service as Circuit Drug Court Judges in all the counties while maintaining their normal caseloads in their own circuit in Mercer County.

Whichever judge is acting as Chief Judge in Mercer County also will serve as administering drug court judge of the Southern Region Drug Court.

Mercer County Magistrates Michael D. Flanigan and Richard D. Fowler will act as Drug Court Magistrates in all the counties, as well as maintain their own caseloads.

Prosecutors, judges and magistrates from McDowell, Monroe, Summers, and Wyoming Counties will be able to refer eligible cases to the Southern Region Drug Court. Primary treatment services will be provided in the counties of referral through the Southern Regional Day Report Centers located in those counties, with participants being transported one day a week to Mercer County for appearances before the Drug Court Judges or Magistrates.

At present due to transportation and resource limitations, no more than 15 participants each will be accepted from Summers and Monroe Counties combined or Wyoming and McDowell Counties combined.

The circuit judges will handle cases involving individuals who are substance abusers or addicted to substances and who are charged with felonies. Magistrates will handle cases involving individuals who are substances abusers or are addicted to substances who are charged with misdemeanors.

The Southern Region Drug Court may operate as a pre-plea, post-plea, post conviction, or probation violation Drug Court Program, although it currently focuses on post-plea participants. People can volunteer for the program to avoid further prosecution and jail and prison sentences, if a judge so orders. Prosecutors have final approval of all participants, and all participants must be evaluated as a low to moderate risk to be released back into the community.

People who have been charged with sex crimes or crimes in which a child was the victim are not eligible. Participants undergo substance abuse treatment and are heavily supervised by probation officers, law enforcement and the sentencing court.

If needed, they may also undergo treatment for mental illnesses. Participants may be forced to repeat certain phases if they have positive drug screens or if they refuse to cooperate. The judge may impose jail time if he feels it is necessary to make a participant follow the protocol.

West Virginia now has four regional adult drug courts covering eighteen counties. Additional drug courts are expected to open this year in Cabell, Kanawha, Greenbrier, Pocahontas, Monongalia, and Preston Counties. West Virginia also have two juvenile drug courts operating in Cabell and Wayne Counties.

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