Courts Start Alternative Program For Drug Offenders

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Beginning Thursday, Gila County officials will have an additional tool to help them battle the high number of drug-related cases that are clogging the judicial system.

Drug courts have been around for the past decade, offering the judges an alternative to incarceration of habitual drug offenders. Defendants targeted for drug court are generally non-violent offenders whose involvement with the judicial system is primarily due to their abuse of illegal substances.

"We have been working on creating our own drug court for two years," said Superior Court Judge Edd Dawson, who oversees the county's new program. "The major holdup was financing. Drug court combines treatment and intensive court involvement."

After submitting a second grant application to the federal government, Dawson said the county received word earlier this year that the program would be funded.

"Our first 'class' of drug court participants will come from people already on probation for drug-related offenses," Dawson said.

"The benefits of the program are many. It is estimated that at least 40 percent of the crime in Gila County is drug related."

The judge said he's researched a number of programs designed to curb drug offenses, but drug court seemed to offer the best chance for success.

"It is cheaper than incarceration," he said, "and if we can turn some addicts into productive citizens, we will prevent additional crime and untold amounts of suffering, both on the part of victims of those crimes as well as by the families of the offenders."

The success of the drug court depends on the relationship between the court and the probation department. Probation officers will nominate only non-violent candidates for the program. Once screened and accepted into the program, candidates will submit to frequent visits to the court, random urinalysis testing, and structured treatment and counseling.

For now, Dawson expects to hold drug court every Thursday afternoon, rearranging his trial schedule to accommodate the new program. The first and third Thursdays will be conducted in Payson; the second and fourth in Globe.

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