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Westmoreland nears beginning of its drug court

Rich Cholodofsky
| Monday, Sept. 7, 2015, 10:45 p.m.

After a year of research, fundraising and planning, Westmoreland County is poised to begin its drug court program later this month as a means to help curb the addiction problem in the region.

Fifty participants will eventually be enrolled in the program, which will allow some who are charged with felonies to have their cases downgraded to misdemeanors, and others accused of less serious counts to have their cases dismissed.

Others convicted of drug offenses could have their sentences reduced after successful completion of an 18-month treatment and monitoring program.

“We're excited about the fact we are starting drug court. This is a joint effort by the county commissioners and the judges to address the concerns of the drug epidemic,” said court administrator Amy DeMatt.

Criminal court judges Meagan Bilik-DeFazio and Chris Feliciani each will oversee 25 participants. The judges will begin accepting referrals on Sept. 28, and the first individuals are expected to be enrolled by Oct. 7.

The program will consist of two groups: individuals charged with drug offenses and inmates serving jail sentences.

Bilik-DeFazio said the first group of participants will be referred by the district attorney's office and will have the opportunity to have their charges reduced or dismissed upon successful completion.

In the second group, inmates could be paroled to an intensive supervision program and asked to do community service.

“These are the really tough cases, people who would be in state prison or dead. We will be saving lives, no doubt,” said Bilik-DeFazio.

The drug court program will require participants to appear before a judge every two weeks. Routine drug tests will be administered. Bilik-DeFazio said the program anticipates that participants will record several positive drug test results during the course of their recovery.

Sanctions will be imposed for those positive tests, but it won't cause participants to be dismissed from the program.

“The biggest part of drug court is showing up for treatment. There will be stiffer penalties for blowing off treatment than for testing positive for drugs,” Bilik-DeFazio said.

The drug court program has been in the works for the last year.

Court staff, along with the judges, visited drug courts in Illinois and in Blair County, and crafted Westmoreland's program based on those observations.

The program is funded through a $100,000 private donation, another $100,000 from court costs collected as part of other criminal court cases and $100,000 from the county's general fund.

DeMatt said the annual cost to operate the drug court has yet to be determined.

In addition to the two judges and their staffs, the drug court will have one administrator and two probation officers.

Tom Plaitano, a member of the county's drug overdose awareness task force that has advocated for a drug court, said the program will be difficult to complete.

“Those who are not committed to changing their lives and becoming drug-free will never last in this intensive, hard-pressed process. To successfully complete the program, a person has to help themselves and truly change their behavior. It is in no way a free pass or slap on the wrist,” Plaitano said.

Officials view drug court as another option in curbing the drug abuse epidemic in Westmoreland County.

According to the most recent statistics from the coroner's office, as of Sept. 4 there have been 68 deaths attributed to overdoses, including 23 linked to heroin. The office has 21 potential fatal overdose cases under investigation.

The coroner's office last year reported 87 fatal overdoses, a record number for the county.

“This is definitely needed, and it's going to hold people accountable,” said Tim Phillips, director of prevention services for Westmoreland Community Action.

Rich Cholodofsky is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 724-830-6293 or rcholodofsky@tribweb.com.

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