New program could bring hope, new start for drug offenders

Huntington County Superior Court Magistrate Jennifer Newton (left) and Probation Officer Desiree Fritcha will head up the county’s new Drug Court program, which is expected to begin in January, thanks to a grant awarded through the Justice Reinvestment Advisory Council.
Huntington County Superior Court Magistrate Jennifer Newton (left) and Probation Officer Desiree Fritcha will head up the county’s new Drug Court program, which is expected to begin in January, thanks to a grant awarded through the Justice Reinvestment Advisory Council. Photo by Rebecca Sandlin.

Originally published Dec. 31.

A new program administered through the county’s court system could bring hope and a new start for those whose drug habits have landed them on the wrong side of the law.

It’s called Drug Court – an intensive rehabilitation program that targets mainly high-risk offenders who plead guilty to drug felony charges.

Huntington County Magistrate Jennifer Newton says the program has been discussed for several years, but it wasn’t until this year that it got a kickstart, thanks to an $86,000 grant from the Justice Reinvestment Advisory Council.

“Our target is people with substance abuse problems, addictions. We may not just have people who have been convicted of a drug offense, but maybe theft, burglary, something else like that, where their underlying problem is a drug addiction,” Newton says. “A lot of domestic violence cases, theft cases occur because of underlying drug addiction. Those are the people we are targeting.”

She describes Drug Court as “intensive” – involving treatment, testing, mental health counseling, peer support, case management and courtroom visits.

The length of the time an offender spends in the program can vary, from 18 to 24 months, starting off in either Superior or Circuit court after they plead guilty to the offense. Benefits of the drug court include reduced drug dependence, reduced recidivism and improved quality of life, not only for offenders but their families as well. In addition, the county saves money by keeping successful candidates out of jail.

“This is part of their sentence. However, their sentence is deferred until they complete Drug Court,” Newton explains. “If they don’t successfully complete Drug Court and they are terminated from the program, they will be sentenced according to the plea. If they do successfully complete it, the plea will say what’s going to happen.”

Successful graduates could have their charges dismissed, reduced or receive no more jail time for their offenses.  

“It’s a whole different concept than the regular criminal justice system,” she adds. “The goal is to help the person as a whole – not punish them, which is what our current judicial system does. This is to help them lead a drug-free life, which in turn not only helps them and their families, but also benefits the community. Hopefully they will come out and not re-offend.”

Newton anticipates the program will begin in late January, after it is certified by the Indiana Judicial Center. On Jan. 13, the Indiana Judicial Center staff will pay a visit to Huntington County to meet with the Drug Court team. If it is approved, the program will receive a temporary, six-month certification. After that, the program can be recertified for a three-year period, and take about 25 offenders per year.

The brunt of Drug Court’s costs will be funded through the grant, which Newton says will be applied for annually; however, Probation Officer Desiree Fritcha, who will serve as the Drug Court coordinator, says those who go through the program also pay their way with user fees.

“We have not asked for any local taxpayer money at all,” she says. “Just the money that’s funneled through the state for the grant.”

The grant covers Fritcha’s salary, benefits and IT services. The grant will also open up room for an additional probation officer to be assigned to the team.

Other members of the Drug Court team include the prosecutor, defense attorneys, law enforcement officers, a mental health provider and community corrections officer.

The group has spent months in planning the behavior modification program, which will be administered in four phases:

1. Assessment and Stabilization
Lasts approximately eight weeks. Candidates will be assessed with their treatment provider and will attend Drug Court dates weekly, as well as undergo frequent and random urine and breath tests. They will attend treatment, peer support or self-help group such as Alcoholics Anonymous three times per week and attend frequent case management appointments.

“There are certain goals during that phase that the defendant needs to meet,” Newton says.” If they meet those then they’ll go on to the second phase.”

2. Treatment Focused
Lasts approximately 26 weeks. Participants will attend Drug Court bi-weekly, submit to frequent and random urine and breath tests, attend treatment per provider schedule, peer support or self-help group attendance of three times per week and attend frequent case management appointments.

3. Changing Behavior
Lasts around 26 weeks. Drug Court attendance will be mandated every three weeks, in addition to frequent and random urine and breath tests, attend treatment per provider schedule, peer support or self-help group attendance of two times per week and two weekly case management appointments.

4. Aftercare
Lasts about 12 weeks. Drug Court attendance will be required once every four weeks, with random urine and breath tests. Participants will attend treatment per provider schedule, peer support or self-help group attendance (at least one per week) and one weekly case management appointment.

During Phase 4, participants will receive a “graduation packet” and make a presentation to a panel of professionals from the Drug Court team. They will answer questions regarding their continued sobriety and what they have gained from Drug Court.

Those in the program may have additional goals to reach as well, Fritcha says.

“They’ll have program goals, and then they’ll have individual goals,” she explains. “Some of the other drug courts that I have gone to visit throw in parenting classes and some financial management classes.”

Those who make it through the entire program will go through a graduation ceremony. Fritcha says it means a tremendous amount to offenders when the judge shakes their hand and praises them for their accomplishment.

“The judge tells them that they’re proud of them for doing things in their personal life that’s not just required in the rules,” she adds. “It’s neat to see that these defendants who once were in shackles and chains are now being respected by the judge. And I think that goes a long way. … They look at themselves differently.”

Newton says Drug Court couldn’t come to Huntington County at a better time. On Jan. 1, Level 6 felons will be required to be incarcerated in the local jail rather than the Department of Corrections, with few exceptions.

“Our jail is already overcrowded, and that’s just probably going to add to it,” she says. “We’re looking for ways to reduce the jail population. But really, the overriding issue is to help these people get clean. Incarceration isn’t going to cure addiction.”