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Pennsylvania courts struggle to intervene early with heroin addicts

| Saturday, Oct. 11, 2014, 6:19 p.m.

The state won't pay to send addicts who have committed low-level crimes and have scant or no criminal records to drug court, which would provide treatment when they have the best chance, experts say, of turning their lives around.

The state's Intermediate Punishment grant focuses on more serious offenders.

A study of heroin use released in September by the Center for Rural Pennsylvania, a bipartisan state legislative agency, recommends extending the grant to cover court costs for lower-level offenders.

Dr. Neil Capretto, medical director at Gateway Rehabilitation Center in Beaver County, and Michael Flaherty, a clinical psychologist — co-chairmen of U.S. Attorney David Hickton's advisory group on combatting heroin — endorsed the same idea, saying early intervention makes sense.

Thirty-two counties have set up drug court programs since 1997, including Allegheny and Butler counties. A spike in heroin overdose deaths has Westmoreland County beginning a program.

“We're looking for high-risk and high-needs offenders,” said Paul Kuntz, the county's court administrator.

Offender levels are based on the person's criminal history, the current conviction and other factors, said Mark Bergstrom, the executive director of the state Commission on Sentencing.

For example, an addict convicted of stealing $50 would be Level 1 offender, the least serious, if he or she has no criminal history; a Level 2 offender would be an addict with a prior conviction for burglary; a Level 3 offender would have two prior burglary convictions; and Level 4 involves more serious crimes, he said.

The grant that finances drug courts focuses on nonviolent Level 3 and 4 offenders, said Bob Merwine, director of criminal justice system improvements for the Pennsylvania Commission on Crime and Delinquency.

“One of the main savings out of going with Level 3 and 4 is that they would otherwise be incarcerated,” he said. “It allows a county to save jail costs.”

The law doesn't prevent counties from sending Level 1 and 2 offenders to drug court, but the state grant won't cover the costs, he said.

If people addicted to heroin or other opiates start committing crimes to feed their habits, they usually start with minor offenses, such as shoplifting or forging checks, law enforcement officials say.

Long-term exposure to opiates makes it harder for addicts to make rational decisions and control their impulses, a growing body of scientific research shows.

“There's this clear link with heroin and cognitive changes,” said Thomas Gould, director of Temple University's neuroscience program.

Early court intervention can get addicts out of a downward spiral.

“The earlier you can intervene, the more likely you are to make a difference,” Gould said.

Lycoming County places any level offender in its drug court since the program started in 1998, said Shea Madden, executive director of the West Branch Drug & Alcohol Abuse Commission.

Eligibility is based on whether the offender needs treatment, not the offense level, she said.

Treatment for Level 1 and 2 offenders is covered by private insurance, if the person has it, medical assistance and county funds.

“If they need it, we find a way to get it covered for them,” she said.

Westmoreland County wants to do the same, but hasn't worked out the details, Kuntz said.

It's expected to take another six months to set up a pilot program and another year to get it fully operational, he said.

Counties also must persuade low-level offenders to enter drug court, he said.

“What is your motivation to go into an 18-month-long program when you can go into probation, where the demands aren't that great?” Kuntz said.

That's a statewide problem, said Karen Blackburn, administrator of the Problem Solving Courts Program for the Administrative Office of Pennsylvania Courts.

Treatment for heroin addiction needs to be for 18 to 24 months. Most Level 1 and 2 offenders receive a sentence of about six months of jail or probation, she said.

Allegheny County provides treatment to drug-dependent Level 1 and 2 offenders, but it doesn't send them through drug court, partly because of that issue, said Ron Seyko, director of probation and parole.

People sent to drug court have to face a judge every month and know they'll end up in jail if they quit, Blackburn said.

“We know that's what makes drug courts work, that supervision — that hammer if you will,” she said.

Brian Bowling is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-325-4301 or bbowling@tribweb.com.

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