By Robert Ohneiser
In 2012, the Board of Supervisors (BOS) eliminated funding for the Loudoun County Drug Court. Supervised and administered by Loudoun County Circuit Court judges, Drug Court gave serious drug offenders the option of entering an intensive rehabilitation program as an alternative to trial, under the condition that they submit to frequent drug testing, appear in court weekly for at least one year and meet other stringent financial and employment criteria. Drug Court detractors cited the program’s low graduation rate as the reason why funding should be eliminated, while proponents of the program, including judges Burke McCaHill and Thomas Horne described it as, not only the most intensive form of supervision in Virginia’s criminal justice system, but potentially life changing – even for repeat offenders who failed to complete the program.
So, should the Drug Court be brought back? And, if so, in what form?
The answer to the first question is yes. Loudoun County and its citizens should minimize the high cost of incarceration for all victimless crimes especially young adult drug possession offenders. We should no longer condone the waging of such an ineffective battle against the human toll that repeat offenders – including substance abusers – visit on themselves, our families and our roads.
On the second question, my vision is that the commonwealth attorney – our jurisdiction’s top legal officer – be put in charge of designing, managing and securing funding for a refocused and revitalized Drug Court, in cooperation our county’s sherriff’s and probation’s departments, judges, the clerk of the court and the public. The Drug Court should also be reorganized to include alcohol-related addictions and victimless offenses.
When the Loudoun County Board of Supervisors eliminated funding for the Drug Court it made the proverbial mistake of “throwing the baby out with the bathwater,” going back to the old way of doing things without taking responsibility for the recidivism and enormous public safety problems the Drug Court was designed to address.
Criminality is a term loosely used to justify punishment. Those of us who have been wronged by others – including persons driving under the influence of alcohol – tend to have a harsher view of the punishment the person should receive. Both from a family perspective – my brother died due to an alcohol-related auto accident – and as a criminal defense lawyer, I understand both sides of the criminality and punishment debate.
Some of my clients are veterans with numerous military honors, yet the court system does little to assist them with drug and alcohol-related problems other than cutting down their punishment and forgiving a bit of jail time in exchange for participating in AA. When there is no victim, why do we choose to punish a Loudoun resident who is more an addict than a criminal? And, when there is a victim, why do we so easily trade away a just punishment?
And, let’s think outside the box. If we are serious about stopping drunk driving, why not consider having our Sheriff’s Department detain drunk drivers outside of bars … rather than randomly pulling citizens over if they are driving a few miles over the speed limit? Isn’t that really where the issue of profiling is most obvious?
I believe we need to take drunk drivers off the road, period – regardless of how we handle their rehabilitation or punishment. Wouldn’t Loudoun benefit by having a reputation that it has no tolerance for drunk driving? Does anyone believe we have that reputation now?
In addition to looking more closely at the issue of crime and punishment – and how to set up a system that rewards personal responsibility as a tool for encouraging recovery – I am looking for a Drug Court more focused on young adults. I think there is far more relevance and effectiveness in a program which helps an addicted person before it becomes their chosen way of life. How many times have we seen this prosecutor allow police charges against a young person to stand even though the evidence would never pass court muster? Do we really want to send messages to our young adults that the system is based on a “gotcha” mechanism followed by expensive plea bargaining instead of a caring community that expects responsibility yet understands reality – and is willing to help the individual address underlying conditions such as depression, for example.
Loudoun needs to address the related issue of negative budget impacts on mental health support services as well. Mental health support services and drug and alcohol offences are two sides of the same coin.
If the Nancy Reagan approach of “Just Say No” actually worked, we wouldn’t see so much addiction and associated crime, would we? Let’s reopen up the discussion and bring back a better Drug Court.
Robert Ohneiser is a former Loudoun County School Board member and current candidate for commonwealth attorney. He can be reached at email@example.com, 703-729-3735. (ohneiserlaw.com.s3-website-us-east.1.amazonaws.com/)