February 12, 2011

Drug Courts Lower Recidivism Rates

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Emily Linville talks with Judge Sarah Smith's inside her courtroom in downtown Tulsa on Jan. 10, 2011. After two years of being clean, Linville will graduate drug court next month. Linville fought an addiction to Lortab pills and was caught and given the option of attending treatment and drug court.

Adam Wisneski/Tulsa World

Emily Linville talks with Judge Sarah Smith's inside her courtroom in downtown Tulsa on Jan. 10, 2011. After two years of being clean, Linville will graduate drug court next month. Linville fought an addiction to Lortab pills and was caught and given the option of attending treatment and drug court.

The average sentence in Oklahoma for women for a felony drug-related conviction is 5.5 years, according to a Tulsa World analysis of prison sentences since 2000.

Grouping counties by district attorney responsibilities, the average sentence ranges from 4 to 7.2 years, according to analysis of data provided by the Oklahoma Department of Corrections. It excludes suspended sentences, which are often used for Drug Court participants.

These crimes include possessing, obtaining, manufacturing, trafficking and distributing illegal drugs and other controlled substances.

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Nine counties represented in two district attorney areas are at the highest end of the average sentence given to women for drug-related offenses.

Those are District 6 with Caddo, Grady, Stephens and Jefferson counties, and District 4 with Grant, Garfield, Kingfisher, Blaine and Canadian counties—represented by incoming District Attorney Mike Fields.

A prosecutor for 14 years, Fields said factors playing into a sentence include the seriousness of a crime, past criminal offenses, impact the crime had on the community and character of the offender such as job stability.

“All those things can factor into making a recommendation for a sentence,” Fields said. “Because those factors are so broad and so varied, that is why you may have discrepancies in the punishment range. There are just a myriad of different circumstances factoring into a plea recommendation.

“Gender doesn’t play a role in terms of what an appropriate sentence is. Each case is evaluated individually.”

Four counties in Fields’ district are without a drug court, but he said programs are in the process of being launched. He said a drug court in Garfield County shows about a 20 percent recidivism rate, compared with the much higher national and state re-offender rates.

Re-arrest rates statewide are about 24 percent for drug court graduates, 38 percent for offenders coming off successful probation and 54 percent among released inmates, according to the Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse.

Nationally, 46 percent of offenders on conventional probation commit a new offense and 60 percent commit a probation violation, according to the National Association of Drug Court Professionals, which is a national nonprofit group serving as a resource for training and advocacy for specialty courts.

Between 60 percent and 80 percent of drug abusers commit a new crime after being released from prison and about 95 percent return to drug abuse after release, the nonprofit states. With a judge’s supervision, 60 percent to 80 percent of drug users drop out of treatment prematurely and few successfully graduate in a specialty court, the group states.

“Clearly, the statistics bear out the fact that drug courts do better at addressing recidivism than traditional sentencing,” Fields said. “Our goals with drug court are really simple. We want to protect the public, hold offenders accountable and break the cycle of addiction and alcoholism.”

Rural areas face unique obstacles of transportation across greater distances and fewer community resources for treatment, he said. A person may have to drive nearly an hour to get to some treatment programs in some areas.

“In many rural areas, we simply do not have a lot, if any, qualified treatment programs,” Fields said. “An issue found to be a common problem for our rural participants is transportation—to and from treatment and to and from court. Plus, you have to be going to school or a have a job, and transportation is an issue there, too.”

Former Kingfisher County Associate District Judge Susie Pritchett, who retired in December after being a judge for 20 years, said she would incorporate elements of treatment courts, such as ordering random drug tests.

“When you work 8 to 5 and are the only judge in the county handling everything from traffic violations to felonies, who is going to stay and take that docket?” Pritchett said. “It’s a manpower problem and a money problem. We don’t have some of those services readily available. That doesn’t mean we didn’t try to help people. While we don’t call it drug court, we are doing similar things like getting them to counseling.”

Pritchett said women have a harder time kicking drug addictions in her experience. She said Oklahoma’s rank as No. 1 in the nation for female incarceration by the U.S. Department of Justice may not be viewed as negative. The ranking comes from the U.S. Department of Justice.

“The other side of that is that there is no gender bias in the courts and judges are being gender blind,” she said. “The women are being treated equally and are taking responsibility for what they are doing, just like the guys do.”

Curtis Killman, Tulsa World staff writer, contributed to this story

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