Drug court is growing and getting community support but won’t be able to expand as quickly as the local judge in charge of it would like.

Fayette County Superior Court Judge Paul Freed said the state left the drug court’s budget for 2020 at the same level as this year. He had asked for nearly three times as much money as the start-up budget of $129,000.

Drug court is what the Indiana Supreme Court calls a problem-solving court. Earlier this year, the Supreme Court reported the start of the 100th drug court in Indiana.

“Fundamentally, this is a treatment program,” Freed said.

Having started Fayette County’s drug court about 13 months ago, Freed has seen it grow from the initial two participants to 23. With current staffing, the court is limited to 30 participants. Freed sees a much larger need here and had hoped that additional funding would allow him to hire another staff member and grow the program to at least 60.

Participants are men and women who find themselves involved in the criminal justice system because of their use of illegal drugs. Before they can be accepted into the program, they must plead guilty to drug-related charges and agree to a prison sentence. If they fail to meet the drug court’s stringent program standards, they agree they will serve the agreed-to sentence.

“I am super shocked by how little illicit drug use has occurred” among participants, Freed said recently. “We have 23 participants. Every one is tested three times a week so that’s about 1,500 drug tests so far, and only 12 have been ‘hot’ for illicit drug use. There’s almost disbelief from the state.”

Participants must pay for the drug tests, which is one reason every participant must have a job. Part of the issue for some participants is that they get Hoosier Health Works benefits, which has a lifetime cap on drug test costs of $1,500. Freed said he has spoken with state legislators about trying to get a waiver on that provision for participants in a bona fide drug court program.

Another issue is that some participants are making enough money now that they no longer qualify for state-subsidized health insurance but not enough to afford other insurance. So do they continue working for the good money or take a job paying much less to continue having insurance?

The drug tests and participant behavior is monitored by Brandon Burgess, the drug court coordinator. He works to make sure every participant has and keeps a paying job and that they meet various behavior standards, including where they go in their spare time. They are not to associate with other people who use drugs.

Burgess, whose office is on the second floor of the Fayette County Courthouse, is in contact with the participants three or more times every week.

A major role of drug court is behavior modification, Freed said. Some of the participants never learned basic skills, such as what to wear to a job interview or the importance of being on time.

When he started the drug court, “of course, we assume that heroin addition is going to be the hardest part to change,” Freed said. “That is no so. Other collateral life skills issues are really difficult.”

Weekly on Thursday morning, Burgess reports on each participant to a drug court advisory panel presided over by Freed. If Burgess reports any problems, the advisory group discusses it with Freed, which decides how he will address it. Then, in an open court session, Freed calls each participant to stand in front of him and reviews progress – or the lack of – and either praises the man or woman or lets them know what they need to do to stay in the program.

As they continue in the program, participants get more responsibility for their own actions and are allowed more privileges. But, should they fail, then it’s off to prison.

Freed praised local employers who have been open to hiring drug court participants. But even though they know about drug court participation, Freed expects them to treat the participants just like any other employee, disciplining or firing them if needed.

Freed is hopeful that the two participants who started in the program when it began in September 2018 will be the first to graduate from it next spring. The goal is that they and others will return to productive life in the community.
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