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Westmoreland County court offers addicts chance

Rich Cholodofsky
| Friday, Sept. 23, 2016, 10:51 p.m.

Josh Rimmel has been in and out of court for years, but never before was he greeted with applause and a raffle ticket.

But that's what he got Thursday as he appeared before Westmoreland County Common Pleas Judge Meagan Bilik-DeFazio in a drug court program that offers treatment and rehabilitative options as ways of avoiding jail for criminal defendants.

“I've been using for almost 18 years, and the last time I (overdosed), my kids were around,” said Rimmel, 35, of Vandergrift. “I was thrown in jail for six months and weighed my options. I figured drug court was a better way to go.”

Westmoreland County's drug court program marked its one-year anniversary this week, and officials hailed the success so far of the alternative diversionary system. The program offers defendants counseling, treatment and other incentives to remain drug-free.

There is a possibility for some that the criminal cases that brought them to court could be resolved with no jail time and, in some instances, with charges dismissed altogether.

The program is different than all other court sessions. There's little formality to the proceedings in which participants appear before a judge every other week. They read a quote they've selected and chat about their lives and experiences.

“I'm finding my participants are all good people who honestly want to change their lives,” Bilik-DeFazio said. “They just need support of the program.”

She and Common Pleas Judge Christopher Feliciani alternate weeks presiding over drug court. Each has a roster of up to 25 participants to monitor. Currently, 47 people are enrolled in the program.

Participants submit weekly journal entries, and those who meet weekly goals and accomplishments receive prizes that range from candy bars to gift certificates.

While rewards are offered for successes, sanctions such as jail, community service and other punishments are imposed for failed drug tests and other program violations. Major violations result in expulsion from the program, which two participants learned Thursday — one for leaving an inpatient treatment center and another after being accused of trying to cheat a drug test.

“We want to work with everybody, so it's something we never want to see,” said Eric Leydig, a probation officer who serves as drug court supervisor. “We have three spots open now and about 13 on the waiting list.”

Even as participants struggle to deal with addiction, officials said the program has provided the groundwork for the success they envisioned.

“Everybody is a work in progress. All the participants have some desire to get clean,” Judge Feliciani said.

Florida's Miami-Dade County opened the first U.S. drug court in 1989, according to the National Association of Drug Court Professionals.

Today, more than 3,000 operate nationwide — with half being adult treatment drug courts, the U.S. Department of Justice reports.

Westmoreland County's drug court was created to help offset the drug epidemic, a growing problem on a record-setting pace for overdose deaths in 2016. So far this year, the coroner's office has confirmed 67 overdose deaths with another 28 cases pending. A record 126 drug-related deaths occurred in 2015.

The program's $300,000 budget is funded equally through private donations, court fees paid by defendants and money from the county budget.

Participants are chosen from a staff that includes judges, prosecutors, probation officers and drug-treatment professionals. Once enrolled, they are subjected to random drug tests as they work to complete treatment programs, undergo counseling and make regular court appearances.

Participants must complete five phases of the program, a timeline that is expected to take at least 18 months. So far, one participant has reached phase four. The first graduations could come in May.

For Rimmel, who has been in the program for two months, drug court has given him the first real successes in beating his addiction, he said.

“I've been through rehab or out-patient treatment seven or eight times. Now, I'm clean and sober. I want this to work, and it helps me build support,” Rimmel said. “Today, I want to stay clean. I'm not doing it just to get probation. I want to stay clean for me.”

Rich Cholodofsky is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at 724-830-6293 or rcholodofsky@tribweb.com.

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