Drug Court keeps abusers out of jail and prison

HOUGHTON – For Houghton County 97th District Court Judge Mark Wisti, locking up people with substance abuse problems who end up in the criminal justice system is not only a waste of time, it’s ineffective as prevention.

Wisti said the idea of a drug court is to deal with defendants who come into the court system with substance abuse problems as having a health issue rather than a criminal issue.

Houghton County began its drug court system in district court in October, Wisti said. However, as early as July, he was dealing with some defendants as though they were going through a drug court.

According to the website of the National Association of Drug Court Professionals, the first drug court was implemented in 1989 in Miami-Dade County, Fla. Those working in the justice system there decided since the same people were ending up in criminal court because of substance abuse offenses, a different system based on treatment and recovery, rather than incarceration, was needed. There are now almost 3,000 drug courts in the United States and its territories.

“It’s primarily a reaction to the War on Drugs,” Wisti said.

The War on Drugs began under President Ronald Reagan, and targeted not only drug traffickers and dealers, but also users, imposing harsh jail and prison sentences on all.

At the start of the War on Drugs there were about 300,000 people incarcerated for drug offenses in the United States, Wisti said. Now, that number has grown to about 2.2 million, with about 1.5 million being people with substance abuse problems.

“The social cost of this is enormous,” he said. “You’ve stuck the problem of addiction on the criminal justice system.”

In order to appear in drug court locally, Wisti, who presides over the court in the district court room in the Houghton County building, said the defendant’s crime must be related to addiction. The person has to be evaluated by professionals who deal with substance abuse issues. The court is a partnership of district court, the probation department, Phoenix House substance abuse treatment facility, Dial Help, Self-Management and Recovery Training, Copper Country Mental Health, the Houghton County Sheriff’s Office, the county prosecutors and defense attorneys.

“We meet every two weeks,” he said.

Baraga, Gogebic, Houghton and Ontonagon counties are Region 1 of four regions in the state, and it’s the only one operating so far, Wisti said.

“The state of Michigan is going to require every county to have one,” he said.

The drug court deals with abusers of all drugs, Wisti said, including alcohol.

“The state is more interested in us working with drunk drivers,” he said. “The main reason is they kill more people.”

Wisti said the drug court is non-confrontational and is intended to help people who are involved with the criminal justice system because of substance abuse.

“This is intended for hardcore people,” he said. “Almost everyone of them has been through drug treatment plans.”

Those who go through drug court must go through five phases of drug and alcohol testing and other requirements, including meeting regularly with probation officers and case managers, Wisti said. In order to move on to a subsequent phase, the person must be sober for 90 days. The entire program last 15 months, and those taking part in the program are closely monitored.

“This is not easier than going to jail,” he said. “They’re constantly tested. It’s not hugs for thugs.”

Despite that, Wisti said some defendants actually ask for drug court.

Although the intention of drug court is to help people get over their addictions and keep them out of the criminal justice system, Wisti said there are graduated sanctions for violators, including jail time and community service.

There are currently 16 people going through the local drug court system, Wisti said, and there have been four sanctions.

Since October, Wisti said the local drug court has saved 500 jail days, which is a significant money savings.

The local drug court is funded by a federal grant administered by the state, Wisti said. Early on, the local court needed an extra $7,000 for administration costs, which the Houghton County Board of Commissioners voted unanimously to provide.

Wisti said drug courts generally are successful in keeping offenders from coming back into the criminal justice system.

“This dramatically cuts down on recidivism,” he said. “It halves it at least.”

He’s been very pleased early on with the value of the local drug court, Wisti said.

“It appears to be going so well, it’s hard to believe,” he said.

Wisti said the war on drugs has been a huge waste of money and resources regarding substance abusers, and he hopes the drug court concept will help change that way of thinking in the country.

“Future generations are going to look at the war on drugs the way we look at the Salem witch trials,” he said.