Utah drug courts decline, an unwelcome symptom of system reform

Wednesday , January 03, 2018 - 5:15 AM

MARK SHENEFELT, Standard-Examiner Staff

Nathan Marion thanks Kathy Morris and drug court for salvaging his life.

He heard recently that Morris was retiring at year’s end, and he wanted to talk about her influence.

“I’ve had so many of my friends die,” said Marion, a 2010 graduate of the Davis County drug court in Farmington.

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Marion credits Morris and others who run the drug court program with helping him get off heroin and forge a better, if not perfect, life. One where he has not become a statistic in the wave of opioid overdose deaths sweeping the nation.

“People don’t realize how to handle this situation,” said the 35-year-old Syracuse man. “I wish drug court would get more recognition.”

He said his parents earlier spent thousands of dollars for private addiction therapy, “but drug court is the only thing that’s ever worked for me.”

However, testimonials by recovering addicts, and accolades for Morris as she caps her career, are not enough to dissipate dark clouds that threaten drug courts’ legacy of success.

ENROLLMENTS FALL AFTER DRUG PENALTIES REDUCED

Drug court enrollments are down 30 percent in the Ogden area’s drug court, according to Weber County Attorney Chris Allred. Statewide, participation is down 10 percent. 

It’s an apparently unintended consequence of Utah’s 2015 Justice Reinvestment Initiative, which reduced penalties from felonies to misdemeanors for some offenses such as drug possession, said Jeff Marrott, spokesman for the state Division of Substance Abuse and Mental Health.

The dynamic of drug court has been altered.

Before the JRI, a drug suspect could plead guilty but have the charges dismissed after completing a 12-to-18-month drug court regimen. Instead of a felony trip to prison, the offender could instead emerge as a rehabilitation success and resume a normal life.

“It’s the most effective treatment I’ve seen anywhere, but I don’t think it works without the leverage of a felony,” Allred said.

Some people now are shying away from the rigorous program and opting for, as Allred put it, “a few days in jail on a misdemeanor.”

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Morris, in an interview Wednesday, Dec. 27, before one of her last drug court orientation sessions in Farmington’s 2nd District Court, lamented the trend.

“I personally don’t believe it’s a good thing,” she said. “We are kind of causing some harm to people. Before, people were more willing and wanting to be in the program, with a felony hanging over their head.”

Once someone gets into drug court, even reluctantly, there’s a good chance of success, according to Morris.

“It’s a very structured program,” she said. “When we interview the people for the opportunity to come into the program, we tell them, ‘You are going to be busy.’”

The schedule includes substance abuse treatment, court appearances and frequent urinalyses. Missed appointments or failed drug tests can land the participant back in jail, but often still with an opportunity for a second chance.

Since the Davis drug court began about 20 years ago, 793 people have graduated and stayed clean for at least five years, Morris said.

There are about 60 drug courts throughout the state, serving hundreds of defendants. It costs the state about $5,800 per participant, according to state documents. 

AN AWAKENING

“Sometimes it takes them a little time to make up their minds that it’s what they want,” Morris said. “They may have an awakening months after they’re in the program.”

More than half make it to graduation and stay out of trouble, Morris said.

“I don’t know that that sounds very good to the average person, but when you’re dealing with drug addicts, that success rate is pretty remarkable,” said Allred.

Still, many flunk out and are jailed, imprisoned or worse.

“We do sometimes lose people — they OD and die,” Morris said. “That’s the most difficult thing to deal with. You get to know these people. … I question myself and say, ‘What could I have done?’ ”

As drug court participation has dropped, officials are trying to fill the gap by broadening its applications. With other felonies, drugs often are at the root, Allred said.

“Burglary, credit card fraud … they still have a felony hanging over their head and they still need drug treatment,” Allred said.

Camille Neider, a longtime defense attorney recently appointed to the 2nd District Court bench in Ogden, said expanding the parameters of who can be considered for drug court would show a “huge” pool of potential participants.

She also said different program lengths could be considered, depending on the individual.

“A recreational marijuana user is different than a hard-core heroin addict,” she said.

Added Marrott: “We’ve really caught the wave with drug courts. Behavioral modification really works, and it can work for other types of criminal activity.”

Such a goal would match the intentions of the JRI, which called for expanded treatment for substance abusers and the mentally ill as a way to relieve pressure on the state’s crowded prisons and jails.

“There’s no way we can arrest our way out of this problem,” Marrott said. “We need to help people change their lives around. We could easily fill up the jails and prisons with people with addictions, and that’s not going to help society.”

‘MAMA MORRIS’

In Farmington, Morris reflected on her more than 25 years of leading the Davis County Attorney’s Office’s work in offender drug treatment.

“I care about people,” she said. “We’re all in this race together, and I want to see these people have healthy, productive, law-abiding lives.”

Told about Marion’s praise for her, Morris said, “That’s sweet of him. I can point them in a direction and give them some structure, but it’s on the client’s shoulders to make the change.”

Some participants call her “Mama Morris,” and Marion agreed her mentoring is strong.

“I have been arrested quite a bit in my life with my drug problem, and I even ended up homeless at one point,” he said. “She helped me work through a lot of the problems.”

During his drug court term, Marion said he “learned a lot about myself; I started to see a lot of things I did that were destructive to my family.”

Learn from your mistakes, Morris told him.

“What changed the most was my self-esteem,” Marion said. “I started to realize I could do it.”

You can reach reporter Mark Shenefelt at mshenefelt@standard.net. Follow on Twitter at @mshenefelt and Facebook at www.facebook.com/SEmarkshenefelt.

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