It has long been known that close supervision can prevent drug-addicted criminals from becoming repeat offenders. That has spawned a national system of 600 drug courts that provide treatment and counseling to inmates as an alternative to regular jail time.
But Orange County officials took the concept a step further: They created an elaborate judicial system aimed at helping repeat drug offenders through intense monitoring by probation officers and by providing them with social and health care services.
The additional programs have boosted the costs--roughly $3,000 a year per participant compared to $2,000-$2,500 for traditional drug courts. But a new study found that Orange County's approach is paying off in other ways.
The report, released July 13, shows a recidivism rate--arrested again within one year of graduation--of 22% for the county program, compared with 34% of drug offenders who go through the regular court system. The average recidivism rate for drug courts across the country is about 30%, according to Steven Belenko, a senior researcher at the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University.
"The Orange County drug court rate is on the low end," Belenko said.
The study, which was commissioned by the Center for Applied Local Research and conducted by a Cal State Long Beach professor, found the program "a successful means to break the cycle of illicit drug abuse and criminal behavior."
The success is ever more sweet for organizers of the program considering the lukewarm reception it received when it first started. At that time, some people inside the courthouse questioned whether such a program could actually turn around criminals with serious drug problems.
"I think we were an unknown commodity," said Judge David C. Velasquez.
But the program quickly gained respect for its breadth of services. It allows drug addicts accused of nonviolent crimes such as burglary and narcotics possession to live at home and attend individual and group counseling sessions. Participants also meet monthly for evaluations with a judge, attend daily 12-step meetings and are subject to unannounced drug tests and house inspections.
Court officials select only participants who they feel have a good chance of staying sober. There are currently 300 people in the program, with an average stay of 15 months.
In court, Judge Velasquez repeatedly encourages and congratulates participants.
At a recent evaluation, Jody Elz was applauded by about 15 peers for all her recent achievements.
"How long have you been sober now?" Judge Velasquez asked.
"It's been seven months, sir," she replied, standing with straight posture. The judge started the entire courtroom in applause.
"And I understand you recently started a job and are looking at taking classes at a community college?"
"That's right, I started my job yesterday, and I'm looking into taking some computer classes at the local college."
Clapping, the judge added: "You've made a lot of progress. Good luck with your new job."
Elz said the counseling and the close surveillance of her probation officer, who has shown up for inspections at her home at 6 a.m., are what helped the most.
"Drug court has helped me reclaim my life," said Elz, 45, who came to the program after being arrested in Santa Ana on drug possession charges.
For all its strengths, some participants, like 40-year-old Dale Wilson, describe the treatment as "stringent" and occasionally unfair.
A cocaine addict for more than 30 years, Wilson said the longest period of time he's been sober was the first nine months he spent in the drug court program.
When he had a relapse, Wilson received nine days in jail, which he said was a much harsher punishment than participants usually receive.
"There was a disparity, but I didn't say anything to the judge about it," he said. "I'm just going to do what I have to and work my way up in this program."
But, Wilson added, "It's a strict program, but I never would've gotten to the point to keep me sober if I hadn't been faced with these punishments."
The program operates at the South, North and Central justice centers. At the suggestion of the report, Velasquez said he would also look into expanding the program to two additional sites in the county and opening up the program to people who aren't just the "highly motivated."
"Orange County's program is very unique," Velasquez said. "We have a more stringent program, aimed at saving the whole person. We don't want to limit our help to those in a particular geographic area."
Starting drug court programs at the Harbor and West courthouses could cost between $150,000 and $300,000 for the first year, said Ralph Rodgers, assistant director of criminal administration.