|Judge Craig Dally|
Dally announced the establishment of a Drug Court in Northampton County, starting April 2. It's just in time, too because County Council voted to defund its treatment program at the jail this year. This will be a problem-solving court, very much like the Mental Health Court announced by District Attorney John Morganelli late last year. But there's a key difference. A Mental Health Court is a diversionary court in which charges can be dismissed without a conviction. The Drug Court, however, will apply to people who have already been convicted.
The Drug Court
Pennsylvania currently has 101 problem solving courts , with 17 in the planning stages. They cover domestic violence, veterans' issues, mental health, drugs prostitution and drunk driving. Their focus is something Judge Dally calls "restorative justice." Instead of focusing on the crime, the emphasis is placed on individual outcomes. The ultimate goal is to protect public health and safety, reduce the prison population and rate of re-entry, resulting in a more efficient use of tax dollars. It is limited to non-violent offenders who suffer from addiction.
Initially, participants in this program will be in court every week. During these periodic and nonadversarial reinforcement hearings, a judge might hand out a gift certificate to a restaurant instead of a jail sentence.
How does this help the county? According to the National Association of Drug Court Professionals, the rate of re-entry, or recidivism, is only 27% for someone who has been graduated from a Drug Court. That compares to an average of between 60-80%. Based on an average sentence of six months, the County will save $16,200 per participant.
Judge Dally anticipates 25 participants at the onset, but the Court should become much larger. Court Administrator Jill Cicero stated that most of the parole and probation violators in jail are there because of drugs. Judge Dally added that many people with offenses like forgery or theft are committing those crimes because "their underlying issue is still drug addiction." Those offenders will be eligible for participation.
Hayden Phillips asked why this Court is unavailable for pre-conviction offenders. "You'll have to ask the District Attorney," responded Judge Dally, who indicated that the courts are open to participation by pre-conviction drug offenders. "We'll see how this goes," Judge Dally stated. "Perhaps the District Attorney will have a change of heart.
"This could mushroom very, very quickly," worried Glenn Geissinger. "We could be the victims of our own success," agreed Judge Dally. But he added that the Courts, as the gatekeepers of the program, can control the size.
Mental Health Court
Unlike the Drug Court, the Mental Health Court is similar to ARD, the program for first-time offenders who have charges dismissed after successful completion of a period of probation. The Mental Health Court requires that there be a direct correlation between a diagnosed mental illness and the criminal activity. According to Judge Dally, there is just one person in this program at this time.
Judge dally explained that both of these problem solving courts will exist only for those who seek it. "You can't be successfully treated unless you want to be treated," concluded Judge Dally.