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January 18. 2013 12:11AM

Keene seeks grants to fund its drug court for 3 years

KEENE - Cheshire County officials who have been working since March to create a felony-level drug court finalized grant applications Tuesday in hopes of opening the court this fall.

In the applications to three federal agencies, the county seeks $350,000 to fund the first three years of the program, county grant support specialist Cyndi Desrosiers said.

It has been a "tremendous process," she said, in which Cheshire County court, law enforcement, probation and county attorney offices have worked together to come up with a proposal for the drug court.

Part of the grant application requires the county to acquire a 25 percent match of in-kind donations. But Desrosiers received more than 100 percent from the departments and organizations forming the drug court; they pledged $360,000 of in-kind donations.

"So there's a commitment from our community that is just unbelievable," she said. "It just shows you that people are really behind it here, really supporting it."

Planning has involved studying other courts in New Hampshire as well as across the country to figure out what works and what doesn't so protocols and procedures could be set for the proposed Cheshire County drug court.

"It's not a one-size-fits-all program. Every county is different."

Cheshire County Superior Court Judge John C. Kissinger Jr. said first a team of county officials would determine if an offender was eligible for the program.

"These are not drug kingpins. These are people who either have possession-related offenses or who are committing nonviolent crimes to support their habits," Kissinger said.

Nor is the drug court program "a slap on the wrist," he said.

Once accepted into the program, offenders would receive treatment for their addiction, work either through employment or a volunteer position, go to therapy several times a week, appear before the drug court once a week and be subjected to random drug tests several times a week. Offenders who failed to meet the program requirements would have to serve some or all of the jail time they were sentenced to in the county house of corrections or state prison, he said.

"The intensive supervision allows for immediate accountability if they are not successful, and sanctions can include on the low end more intensive supervision, more community service up to additional periods of jail time," Kissinger said. "So the idea is that they plead guilty to the offense, they are sentenced with a significant period of incarceration that hangs over their heads and as a condition they have to successfully complete the program .. It's a whole notion that such a high percentage of people that are charged with crimes have substance abuse problems, and many of them are repeat offenders for whom traditional programs have not been successful."

A successful drug court program helps felony-level offenders move on to lead more productive lives, reduces crime and saves money. According to the National Association of Drug Court Professionals, it costs about $24,000 a year to incarcerate one person. It costs about $8,000 for an intensive community supervision and treatment program, such as that imposed by a drug court.

Desrosiers estimates Cheshire County spends about $32,000 a year to incarcerate an inmate. She said the plan would be to have about 40 offenders enrolled in the program each year. If offenders get a handle on their addiction or get treatment for an underlying mental health issue while in the program, they are less likely to re-offend, she said.

Drug court programs are becoming more popular across the country for reducing recidivism rates for offenders with substance-abuse problems, she said. The National Association of Drug Court Professionals says about 75 percent of drug court participants remain arrest-free two years after completing a program.

Rockingham, Strafford and Grafton counties have drug courts. Early this week, New Hampshire Superior Court Chief Justice Tina Nadeau promoted her campaign to create more drug courts in the state by enlisting the aid of state lawmakers to sell the program in their home counties.



mpierce@newstote.com


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