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Culpeper pursuing $500K from Justice Dept. to start drug court
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Culpeper pursuing $500K from Justice Dept. to start drug court

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A year and a half after getting initial approval from elected county leaders, a proposed Culpeper Drug Court remains in the works as a potential lifeline for those in the community living with long-term substance use disorder.

However, funding sources remain in question for the local best practices program. Similar efforts have been successful elsewhere in reducing jail population and recidivism.

Less tangible, but still notable is the very real potential for overall reduced costs in local criminal justice, social services and other costs associated with helping those people who successfully complete the 18-month drug court program and stay out of jail.

By the end of the program, successful participants will have received counseling, treatment and resources and have a job as well family reunification. That was the gist of the latest pitch by the county’s top prosecutor, Paul Walther, for starting a Culpeper Drug Court, made to the Culpeper County Board of Supervisors at its meeting Tuesday.

Following considerable discussion and many questions about the cost of the program compared to the level of positive outcome, the board unanimously voted to support an application to the U.S. Department of Justice for a $500,000 grant over four years to help cover the cost of starting a Drug Court here. The deadline to apply is March 17. The money would be released Oct. 1, 2021.

The Supreme Court of Virginia granted Culpeper County permission to start a drug court nearly a year ago. Since that time, a committee of stakeholders from criminal justice, social services, court services, community services and more has been meeting to create the localized program. Policies and procedures have been developed, Walther told the board Tuesday, and a handbook for participants developed.

Locking up drug offenders and throwing away the key is no longer the correct route, the prosecutor said. Providing treatment and working together across multi agencies is the right approach, he said.

Walther presented statistics for drug use in Culpeper County showing 360 overdoses responded to by local enforcement from 2016 to 2020, including 43 fatalities and 216 people overdosing on heroin. How many more don’t report overdoses to the authorities, Walther asked, noting hospital overdoses are not reported either.

In the last five years, Culpeper County EMS personnel administered 399 units of Narcan and spent 426 hours responding to drug overdose calls. This doesn’t include responses by volunteer units.

Then there is the cost to the criminal justice system. From 2018 through 2020, Culpeper County Circuit Court had 964, 951 and 787 criminal filings, respectively, according to Walther. Locally, 13 children are in foster care due to their parents being jail because of drugs.

“I’m here to ask for money,” said Walther, Culpeper County commonwealth’s attorney. “This is where the rubber meets the road.”

He further quantified the cost of drug use on a community saying every time a kid has to be taken from their parents because they are in jail or treatment and the family is disrupted, it costs between $50,000 to $100,000 in services.

“It’s costing the county already,” Walther said.

Each successful drug court participant is estimated to save the state some $19,000, he said.

“A drug court is going to save lives and it’s going to save money,” Walther told the board.

Rappahannock-Rapidan Community Services will work with the drug court to institute a treatment policy for participants.

“We’re going to finally have long-term treatment here in Culpeper,” Walther said.

The program will be tailored to “high use, high need” people addicted to fentanyl or heroin, he said. It’s a very serious problem that doesn’t go away overnight, the prosecutor said, that’s why there is long-term treatment.

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“The collateral effect here is they stay clean, they are working bringing money in, their family stays together, kids going to school, life trying to go back to normal,” Walther said, adding, “This is clearly a health issue. One of the best answers is the drug court.”

Walther estimated an annual budget to run the program at $127,699 to $233,142.

“How much is a life worth?” Walther asked the board of supervisors.

Some supervisors were tepid about starting the program. Cedar Mountain Supervisor Jack Frazier said he did not believe those figures were representative of all the costs of a drug court. He suggested using existing criminal justice employees to run the program, saying there is a cost for the judge and lawyers and eventually Walther will need an assistant, too.

Salem Supervisor Tom Underwood agreed that diverting time for the drug court would have an associated cost. Walther asked about the associated cost when a deputy responds to an overdose and administers Narcan. Minimizing that through treatment and a drug court will save the county in the future, the prosecutor said.

Culpeper County Criminal Justice Services Director Andrew Lawson said the state would provide $90,000 to hire a probation officer for the drug court. An additional part-time or full-time with benefits drug court coordinator would be hired on to run the program for a $60,000 to $90,000 salary.

Frazier noted if the drug court does progress, long-term follow up with participants will be needed. The drug court employee will need to be “accustomed to dealing with the drug issue,” he added. The supervisor again asked for use of existing staff to run the program.

Walther responded, “They’ve got their own job … I just don’t think it’s possible.”

Lawson said he would serve as drug court coordinator until someone is hired, but expressed concern with being able to keep up with his department’s caseload.

East Fairfax Supervisor Kathy Campbell said considering the number of overdoses in Culpeper that the drug court coordinator would need to be a full-time position and maybe more. Catalpa Supervisor Paul Bates asked about impact of the drug court on jail population, and potential additional cost savings there.

In the last couple of years, Lawson said, there has been a huge pretrial population in the local jail, nonviolent inmates awaiting their day in court, at least half incarcerated locally on state probation violations and the majority of it for drug use, the criminal services director said.

Inmates with a violent charge on their record in the past 10 years will not be eligible for drug court, Lawson said, adding, “I feel confident we can divert people” from jail.

Board Chairman Gary Deal said he hoped people participating in the program would get treatment, counseling and more care than they would otherwise.

“That’s the most important thing for our Culpeper community,” he said.

Jefferson Supervisor Brad Rosenberger said he believed a drug court, in the long-term, would save Culpeper County money. He said he hoped the federal grant would come through.

“I think we ought to look hard at letting them get this off the ground,” Rosenberger said.

Stevensburg Supervisor Bill Chase, participating by phone, said he agreed with Chairman Deal.

“We keep looking at the money aspects—the result, if we save just a few people, it’s worthwhile,” he said. Chase said the board needed to look at it from the drug users’ point of view.

“It if helps them, I’m all for it. We’ve got to give it a chance to see if it works,” Chase said.

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