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In a split vote earlier this year, Loudoun County supervisors voted to cut funding for a program, which had been working with people convicted of drug-related offenses since 2004. Drug courts are based on the idea that non-violent, drug addicted offenders need intensive treatment and close supervision to break the cycle of addiction-driven behavior. Now, county government programs get cut all the time, especially these days. But proponents of the drug court had plenty of evidence that the program was actually saving the county money in the long run.
Metro Connection's Jonathan Wilson sat down Loudoun's former drug court coordinator, Michelle White, to talk about why she had to fight for the program every year, and what it was like to finally lose that fight. Following are highlights of their conversation.
On being there in 2004, when the Loudoun County Drug Court held its first docket: "We had one person on the docket. It wasn't perfect. It was a learning process - I don't think we ever stopped learning in the drug court. Part of it is the art of learning how to deal within the system to get these people what they need."
Why it was hard to convince some county leaders to continue funding the drug court: "Some people believe that it's coddling - that drug addiction is not appropriately dealt with in the system other than incarcerating people so that they can't use."
How she thinks the system avoided coddling criminal drug addicts: "When there's someone, over your shoulder, calling you and saying, 'what did you do today - what are you going to do tomorrow - call me tomorrow and tell me what you did,' that's a lot of oversight. You have to go to treatment, intensively, every week. You have to come to court, to tell two judges whether you've done what you were supposed to do, or not. And there were consequences. When someone tested positive, they went to jail."
On what it felt like to shut down the program earlier this year: "The worst part in all of it isn't 'Poor Michelle - her job is on the line again.' It is that you saw it working. You saw people transform themselves. It wasn't always pretty, it wasn't always fun, but we helped them. When that had to be taken away, and they would say 'I've been in the regular system and it didn't work - that's why I'm here,' and we say to them, 'I'm sorry, the regular system is all that is left for you,' that's the worst part. A job is a job, whether I loved it or not. It's their life. We had people who died in drug court because of their addiction. So when we would say to people, 'We're trying to save your life,' we meant it."
Loudoun's drug court may be gone for now, but Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell, is a drug court proponent, and this year made it easier for localities across the state to establish drug courts. There are currently 29 drug courts operating in Virginia; eight more are in the planning stages.
[Music: "Fall At Your Feet (In the Style of Crowded House)" by Ace Karaoke Productions from Ace Karaoke Pop Hits - Vol. 53]