County drug court: Worthy of federal dollars?

A young man who used to sleep in a plywood box in a barn now has an apartment and is doing well.

He got a round of applause, even though he is behind paying for court-ordered drug tests.

Another man, a newcomer to the Snohomish County adult drug court, was asked by a judge how long he had been clean and sober.

“I’m on my second day now,” he responded. More applause. That’s the kind of peer support that keeps many of those in drug court going.

On the side of the courtroom earlier this month recent drug court session was a guest who was observing and learning. He wants to use the Snohomish County Superior Court program as an example nationally in his effort to restore federal funding for drug courts.

U.S. Rep. Rick Larsen, D-Wash., and an aide sat through Judge George Bowden’s adult drug court earlier this month. He also visited one of the drug treatment providers used by the local drug court to help people combat addiction.

Larsen was gathering ammunition for a battle in Congress to keep federal dollars flowing to drug courts around the country. The money also is used to train judges and others who run them.

“If you talk to these folks it’s not a vacation at all, but they are given the tools to be successful,” Larsen said of the rigid program that features sanctions, including short jail stints, for not staying clean or attending support group meetings.

The congressman is co-chairman of the Congressional Caucus to Fight and Control Methamphetamine. He testified last month in front of a key budget committee on the importance of supporting drug courts, as well as providing law enforcement agencies with the money they need to fight drug trafficking.

The Bush Administration has proposed cutting all money for drug courts and slashing funding to support detectives assigned to operations such as the Snohomish Regional Drug Task Force. Larsen said he strongly supports treatment and law enforcement efforts to lock up drug dealers.

Officially called Choosing Healthy Alternatives and Treatment, the adult drug court is one of four now operating in Snohomish County. Nonviolent addicts spend months attending drug court and participating in treatment instead of going to jail for crimes.

There also are two drug courts in Snohomish County Juvenile Court, one for young offenders and the other for teens thought to be at risk of getting into trouble. In addition, there’s a new “family” drug treatment court started as a pilot project at the beginning of this year to help parents who are addicted to drugs.

Federal grants are used to start drug courts, Bowden said. Federal money also is used to train people who are involved in drug court programs, he said.

Besides full-time staff members who screen potential candidates, a judge, a prosecutor, a police officer and a public defender are part of the staff that continually monitors the progress of participants.

Public defender Marybeth Dingledy said it costs less in the long run to put people through drug court than to toss them in jail.

“More importantly, it gets to a point where they can be proud of themselves,” Dingledy said. “It’s pretty amazing to see people make that transition from just staying in jail to changing themselves.”

Bowden estimated that there are about 2,000 drug courts now operating around the country. Cutting federal funding would deter more from starting up.

“If they have another 1,000 drug courts around the country, we’d all be better off for it,” Bowden said.

As part of his research, Larsen also visited Evergreen Manor, an Everett substance abuse treatment facility, and talked with clients who are or were in drug court.

“Frankly, the job of being in Congress is easy compared to the job of recovering from addiction,” Larsen said after talking with clients. “They said their goal is not to stay clean but to get their lives back. The people I talked to are well on their way to doing that.”

Reporter Jim Haley: 425-339-3447 or

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