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Clark County specialized drug courts adapt amid COVID-19

Clark County Superior Court Judge Scott Collier said it’s a new era in terms of figuring out how to make court proceedings function, and specialized drug courts that lead people along the road to sobriety are no exception.

“We’ve been working diligently through that process, and it’s continuing to evolve,” Collier said.

The county’s two largest therapeutic speciality courts, Adult Drug Court and Residential Drug Offender Sentencing Alternative Drug Court, also known as DOSA, stopped holding in-person hearings at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. The county’s court system all but halted, but officials knew courts involving substance abuse treatment needed to adapt and continue, Collier said.

On May 7, the aforementioned specialty courts had a first run of “telecourt,” when all participants called in, muted their phones and waited for their names to be called to speak to the judge. They addressed Collier and a team of providers for the first time in several weeks.

This remote court proceeding was a big change.

The county’s Adult Drug Court program was implemented more than 20 years ago to provide behavioral health treatment to nonviolent defendants in the justice system. Proponents say people who opt into drug courts instead of choosing the usual court process have a significantly lower number of rearrests, and it saves taxpayers money.

Its participants have to be local residents, have an eligible felony-level crime, suffer from a severe substance use disorder, and be considered a high risk to end up back in jail.

Drug courts have traditionally been dependent on face-to-face contact at every stage of the process. Adult Drug Court’s four “phases” — stabilization, planning, action and maintenance — all require weekly, biweekly or monthly check-ins with a probation officer and case managers. Attending court hearings to various degrees is also required. Random drug and alcohol tests are administered.

Model disrupted

Now, court officials are trying to keep the same level of accountability present while ensuring that the participants aren’t exposed to the coronavirus.

The drug courts’ staff continued weekly meetings when hearings stopped, officials said. Everyone involved spoke over the phone or video, sharing updates on clients.

“Case managers and our other partners reached out. They’ve been living on their phones and in video conferences. I’m pleasantly surprised that overall as a group, we’ve done well. We’ve had some participants who didn’t take to the change as well, but even in a normal setting it’s not uncommon for some people to not do so well, and fail drug court,” the judge said.

Participants are attending appointments and receiving mental health treatments through Zoom meetings. The court provided phones to several people through a federal grant, Collier said.

Likewise, in Clark County District Court’s substance abuse and DUI courts, which are jointly operated, participants are remaining active over the phone and video, said Beth Robinson, therapeutic specialty courts coordinator.

“All of our participants are individuals. There are some people who are more comfortable with this new way of doing things, while others prefer face-to-face, but overall people are engaging,” Robinson said.

People have learned and adapted to the new way of doing things, said Deborah Akens, who is on the Drug Courts Team at Lifeline Connections, a substance use and mental health treatment center.

Still, Akens said clients are struggling. There have been several relapses. Most of the clients who have relapsed have maintained contact with case managers and counselors; all of the managers have broken a “no face-to-face contact rule” at least once to help clients in crisis, she said.

Both Collier and Akens said finding and keeping work during the pandemic has been a major issue.

“Many of our clients live in clean-and-sober housing and are unable to pay their rent. Many clients who have maintained employment are unemployed and trying to get unemployment benefits,” Akens said.

Partners of drug court have succeeded in keeping clients housed thanks to grants and local programs, Collier said.

However, clients have reported being quarantined with their roommates around the clock is creating high stress and anxiety, Akens said. Others have been frustrated over being isolated from their children, some of whom are in protective custody, which is creating emotional and mental stress, she said.

Troubles with testing

All of the clients, according to Akens, are voicing their concerns about a lack of accountability, because the urinalysis office is closed. That means random drug and alcohol tests aren’t occurring.

Collier said there has been a small amount of testing going on, but the court hasn’t figured out how to properly observe the tests while adhering to social distancing guidelines. As a result, the sanctions for failing a test were changed.

“Jail is sometimes a sanction in normal circumstances. We’re not able to use that right now, so we have a list of creative solutions. They’re writing papers. They’re watching Ted Talks. They’re attending online support meetings, and doing virtual community service hours,” Collier said.

The judge said he hopes drug and alcohol testing resumes as the state begins to reopen.

Despite the hurdles, officials are pleased that the hearings are back on track, and people are continuing to get services. Their work is now more important than ever, they said.

“Structure and accountability is what drug court is all about. Our clients need this. Some of our clients were so new in the program when the pandemic hit that they are continuing to use drugs on a daily basis with no reason to stop until courts are back in session,” Akens said.

The telecourt is the first step for clients to return to some kind of normalcy since the pandemic began, Akens said. “I just want life to get back to normal” is the most popular statement she’s hearing among clients right now.

After being in a holding pattern, both District and Superior Court drug courts are taking referrals for new participants and moving forward despite the unknown.

The caseload of Adult Drug Court is currently at 123. DOSA’s caseload is at 39, which Collier described as “pretty full.”

Substance abuse and DUI courts had a caseload of 14 last week. Robinson said staff are hoping to approve more referrals soon.

Collier said he and other criminal justice officials are having conversations about what will need to happen if the health crisis continues. He personally is confident things will work out.

“We’ve made years of advances in the past couple months out of necessity,” he said. “In the future, I think some of these changes are going to serve the public’s needs a lot better.”


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