One day after Gov. Tom Wolf declared a formal disaster emergency over Pennsylvania's heroin and opioid crisis, Centre County officially launched its own new, long-planned effort to battle addiction.
The Centre County Drug Court began work on Monday, screening initial candidates for entry into the program designed to rehabilitate high-risk and high-need offenders. The program joins other countywide efforts, such as the HOPE Initiative, aimed at fighting the escalating substance abuse problems.
"This a great opportunity for people who have been on probation and parole to work with the court system in a whole new way where they can still be held accountable but also have a support system they’ve never had before," said Julie Seroski, specialty court coordinator for Centre County. "These people are going to have changed lives for the better and they’re going to be able to work with the judge and the probation office in a new way and also have this support system from the drug and alcohol office."
County staff and court personnel have been planning the drug court and working to secure funding for nearly two years, developing it based on best practices in similar courts around Pennsylvania. It's designed more for rehabilitation than punishment and is not intended for dealers or first-time offenders, but rather those who are struggling and keep returning to court because of substance abuse problems.
People entering the program are facing revocation of parole or intermediate punishment sentence. They won't get long jail sentences, or any jail sentence at all. Instead, they begin with 30 days of house arrest. That is followed by intensive supervision by a probation officer and a case manager from the county's Drug and Alcohol Office.
Participants will be required to undergo drug testing at least three times a week, as well as going to recovery support meetings and counseling. In total, it's a four-phase, 18-month program.
"We find a lot of people who go through a therapeutic court program will tell you it would have been easier to go to jail," said Catherine Arbogast, administrator for the drug and alcohol program. "This is incredibly structured, highly accountable, with a significant number of expectations and requirements that have to be met. But what we’re doing is providing individuals with the tools that will allow them to continue those newly learned positive behaviors once they’ve completed the program."
Individuals admitted to the drug court also meet every other week with President Judge Pamela Ruest, who is presiding over the court.
Seroski said that is a major component of therapeutic courts.
"That’s going to be huge for these people, having an opportunity to speak with the judge where they’re not in trouble every single time, Building that rapport with her is going to be key," Seroski said. "Treatment courts all across the state have found that rapport with the judge and getting that praise from the judge when they’re doing well is the biggest thing people look forward to when doing this program."
The court has a maximum capacity for 25 participants at a time. Arbogast said the plan is to have a staggered admission of a few people a month, so that as the capacity approaches 25 some will be near completion and the court can continue admissions on an ongoing basis.
Opioid or heroin abuse is not a criteria for admission, though Arbogast said she expects to see that involved in many cases.
Participants will most often be referred from the Office of Probation and Parole, though they can also self-refer or have their attorneys do so. Gene Lauri, director of criminal justice planning, said that after someone is referred, a triage evaluation looks at if they are at high risk to reoffend and if they have high needs for dealing with substance abuse. Those needs, in addition to treatment, could also involve things such as housing and family issues.
The Drug and Alcohol Office then conducts a comprehensive drug and alcohol assessment.
Arbogast explained thatdrug court participants will have already gone through other options. First-time offenders usually go through Accelerated Rehabilitative Disposition (ARD). The county also has an intermediate punishment program for second-time offenders to receive alternatives to incarceration and a connection to community resources.
"Therapeutic courts are really intended for individuals who have that highest need, highest risk," Arbogast said. "The research has shown that not only are these programs ineffective for first-time offenders, but are actually detrimental to those folks. What we’ve done is expanded the array of options within the court system, within the treatment system so that wherever an individual happens to fall there will be a program that most closely meets their needs."
From left, Centre County Commissioners Mark Higgins and Michael Pipe, Centre County Judge Pamela Ruest, District Attorney Bernie Cantorna, Centre County Drug and Alcohol Office Administrator Catherine Arbogast and Centre County Specialty Court Coordinator Julie Seroski. Photo by Geoff Rushton/StateCollege.com
District Attorney Bernie Cantorna said the drug court is a key part of a multi-faceted attack on addiction, especially heroin and opioid abuse.
"If we don’t deal with the underlying cause and root of this crisis we’re doomed to repeat it again and again," he said. "These are high-risk offenders. These are individuals that went through the system. This is a last stop and it’s about saving lives, changing lives and reducing recidivism we see day to day. If we don’t do that, then Centre County could easily become a county in crisis like others."
Cantorna added that the people admitted to a drug court are "probably the highest risk individuals we have in our court system," posing a risk both to themselves and the community.
"It’s shown objectively to make a difference for the highest risk categories and the community and takes them to a place where they do not pose that risk," he said, noting that a drug court's potential to break addiction can also break a cycle that is passed down from generation to generation among families.
In September, the county received a $400,000 U.S. Department of Justice grant for the court to be distributed over three years, covering the bulk of the courts costs and allowing the hiring of a dedicated probation officer and a drug and alcohol case manager for the court. The district attorney's office gave $100,000 in forfeited money seized from convicted drug dealers, as announced by former DA Stacy Parks Miller in May.
County Commissioners fronted some of the money for the court until the grant was received. Commissioners Michael Pipe and Mark Higgins said the drug court will result in some significant cost savings, both for the county and the community.
Pipe noted that confinement of one person in the Centre County Correctional Facility costs about $35,000 per year and that the county will track the amount saved by the number of people who get help through the drug court instead of serving jail time.
Higgins added that when a person with a family goes to jail, it causes financial strain for the family and in turn human services and community resources. He said research shows drug courts help not only those battling addiction, but also the community and result in a long-term cost savings.
Individuals who are seeking admission to the program are happy to see it finally arrive, Seroski said.
"People looking to come into this program realize that if they don’t come in to this program they could die," she said. "They’re struggling with an addiction that they’ve been struggling with for over half of their life."
Pipe said that the bravery of those who want to go through the drug court and turn their lives around should not be overlooked.
"It’s really a story of courage," he said. "They’re going to come out of this program changed, with better lives, and we’re going to be there for them to support them."
Added Lauri, "We’re giving them a path to recovery, hopefully long-term recovery, so that they can be a contributing member of the community."