Kanawha drug court launched

By Justin Anderson | May 13, 2009




CHARLESTON -- Kanawha Circuit Judge Jennifer Bailey-Walker said that when she was eight years old, she decided to become a lawyer so she could help people.

Now, as a judge, she said that childhood goal was behind her motivation to spearhead the creation of West Virginia's fourth adult drug court.

"As judges, we have the opportunity to serve the public and have a positive impact ... and I think this program will allow that," Bailey-Walker said during a kick-off ceremony Wednesday in her courtroom.

She will serve as the Kanawha court's presiding judge.

With the addition of the Kanawha court, a total of 23 counties in the state are covered by the courts -- which put non-violent offenders with substance abuse problems through rigorous community-based rehabilitation instead of jail.

West Virginia Supreme Court Chief Justice Brent Benjamin told the audience at the ceremony, "Probably one of the best things in my job is the ability to open up a drug court in our state."

Benjamin said he became a believer of the courts while attending two graduation ceremonies of drug courts in southern and northern West Virginia.

On one occasion, Benjamin said, he got to hold a weeks-old baby born to a mother who previously had been addicted to drugs. Benjamin said that without the drug court to help the mother, the baby might have been born addicted itself and introduced into a world of substance abuse.

On the other occasion, Benjamin said he witnessed a drug court graduate -- whom Benjamin said reminded him of the stereotypical long-haired, tattooed criminal -- weep openly at the graduation ceremony and thanked officials for not giving up on him.

"And I think that so much summed up what drug courts are all about," Benjamin said.

Benjamin said there is a place for punishment in the judicial system, but there is also a place for treatment when it's appropriate.

Kanawha County Commission President Kent Carper and Sheriff Mike Rutherford said they'd always been of a mind to simply lock up people who break the law.

But both admitted to seeing positive outcomes of community corrections programs like drug courts and day report centers.

Carper said the drug court initially sounded like a "soft on crime" program. But he said that since about 70 percent of arrests are related to an offenders substance abuse problems, the drug courts should help cut down on crime and save the county and state money related to incarceration costs.

"It's really a public safety program," Carper said.

Rutherford said, "People deserve a second chance. And I think this is going to give it to a lot of people who get onto a system of drugs that they just can not break."

Kanawha Prosecutor Mark Plants said he believes the drug court will reduce the number of drug users and thus reduce the number of drug crimes and repeat offenders.

"Because of this program, Kanawha County is going to be a safer place," Plants said.

Linda Artimez, the Supreme Court's director of treatment court services, said the first drug court started in 1989 in Dade County, Fla. Now, there are drug courts all across the United States.

"They truly have had overwhelming success," Artimez said of the programs. "And they do address one of the greatest social ills."

Artimez said there are an estimated 24 million Americans who abuse or are dependent on drugs and alcohol. An estimated 14 million Americans are arrested every year, she said. Of those, about 9 million have substance abuse problems, Artimez said.

She added that a 2005 report by the federal Government Accounting Office found that drug courts reduce crime and produce a greater cost savings to taxpayers than other strategies.

Artimez said drug courts have an 83.5 percent success rate. That's good, she said, since about 66 percent of people who are jailed for drug crimes re-offend within a year.

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