2017-07-16 / Front Page

‘We have people who are dying’

Drug court to launch in Lapeer County
810-452-2609 • adietderich@mihomepaper.com

LAPEER — A drug court is coming to Lapeer County with hopes of rehabilitating people who face substance abuse-related legal trouble, and slow the “revolving door” of those who end up in front of a judge due to drug- or alcohol-related actions.

A pilot version of the Lapeer County Drug Court could begin as soon as Aug. 1 if a $40,000 grant is received from the Lapeer County Community Foundation. A decision is expected this month.

Not receiving the $40,000 could delay the launch, but one way or another, the Lapeer County Drug Court is happening, said Lapeer County Magistrate Greg Wise, who also would coordinate the drug court.

“There’s going to be a drug court in Lapeer County, it’s just a matter of when,” Wise told The County Press.

The mission statement of the 71A Drug/Sobriety Court outlines the goal of the court: “to increase public safety, rehabilitate non-violent drug and/or alcohol addicted offenders, educate the community while erasing the stigma surrounding addiction and proficiently utilize public funds.”

The program encompasses comprehensive treatment, along with intense court supervision and education.

“The 71A Drug/Sobriety Court will increase long term abstinence by holding offenders accountable for their actions,” the mission statement reads. “Furthermore, this program will provide these individuals with the tools necessary to gain control of their lives, thereby stopping the cycle of addiction. We believe people can change and that we can be instrumental in facilitating that change.”

Since the beginning of the year, Wise said he and other officials have visited drug courts outside of Lapeer County to see how they work. Based on what they’ve seen, along with other research, a preliminary plan for how the Lapeer version would operate already has been developed.

“We hope to use the statewide model for diversion of charges and treatment for those who have drug-related issues,” states a proposal for the Lapeer County Drug Court. “Opioid use and abuse in Lapeer County has resulted in death and community dysfunction i.e. drug-related crimes and impact on families.”

According to the Michigan Dept. of Health and Human Services, such abuse is a statewide problem.

The agency released figures Thursday that said the number of drug overdose deaths in Michigan — 2,335 — increased by 18 percent in 2016 compared with the previous year.

In conjunction with releasing the stats, MDHHS said it is launching an public awareness campaign as part of the state’s “extensive efforts to address opioid addiction and overdoses.”

“Drug addiction is hitting across the board,” said Lapeer County District Court Judge Laura Cheger Barnard, who also serves at chief executive officer of the drug court.

“People who never planned on doing drugs are getting addicted, just through overprescriptions, or stupid experimenting when they’re younger, then all of the sudden they’re into full-blown addiction,” she said.

That can land them in court, facing charges that can lead to a problematic criminal record. Oftentimes, there are repeat offenders.

“It’s a revolving door,” she said. “And that doesn’t do any good for anybody.”

The drug court presents an opportunity to deliver help as an alternative, Barnard said.

“It’s important for the community,” she said. “We have people who are dying,”

Barnard said it’s going to take community effort and support to get the Lapeer County Drug Court up and running.

In addition to Barnard and Wise, the first Lapeer County Drug Court board includes defense attorneys Colleen Starr and Marc Sackin, Lapeer Assistant Prosecutor Dave Campbell, Lapeer County Undersheriff Jeremy Howe, and several others from service organizations.

Mike Sharkey, prosecuting attorney for Lapeer County, said he is “100 percent supportive of the drug court.”

“I believe it will be a success because Judge Barnard is very enthusiastic about it, and the success of any type of program requires a leader who is determined to make it work,” he said.

The prosecutor’s office will assign an assistant prosecuting attorney “to represent the People of the State of Michigan in the Drug Court.” The assigned assistant prosecutor will participate in court proceedings, site visitations, training and attend any necessary training conferences.

One thing the program won’t be is an easy “get out of jail free card” for those who charged with drug- or alcohol-related crimes.

Convictions of violent crimes such as assault and battery, domestic violence, or resisting and obstructing a police officer may make some ineligible for drug court.

Further, entry into drug court will only be granted after an initial screening process and commitment from the participant that includes signing a contract and release so that the court can review progress and test results.

The first six weeks of participation in drug court is considered a probationary period and the drug court team can remove participants at their discretion.

There are other strict rules that maintain the integrity of the program, ranging from “no sagging pants” and “no hats, caps, or bandannas” to being subjected to random home visits by representatives of the drug court.

Participants also will be required to appear in front of a judge on a regular basis to discuss progress — or setbacks. Random drugs tests will be given, too, including a minimum of 14-16 a month for the first three to six months.

There are many other requirements, too.

Those who successfully complete the program will “graduate” after a period of 12 to 24 months, depending on what is ordered by the court.

“I’m excited to have a drug court program finally getting started in our community,” said Lapeer County Circuit Court Judge Byron Konschuh. “As prosecutor, substance abuse was one of my priorities — working with prevention, intervention, and education — because it’s such a huge problem.”

As the county’s previous prosecuting attorney and now a judge, Konschuh has been among those with a front row seat to the evolution of drug abuse in Lapeer County. It’s also given him insight as to what works best.

“I truly believe that the opioid epidemic has blossomed because alcohol and drug abuse is a disease,” Konschuh said. “And as a disease, treating people like criminals is not the way to go.”

Konschuh said he believes more in a system of “treating people like they have a problem and getting treatment and trying to minimize the damage on their record so they can go back to, or continue, being law-abiding citizens rather than being someone who is going to be a drain on public resources for an extended period of time.”

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