There may be a new alternative to jail for young misdemeanor offenders in Carson City.
Judge Thomas Armstrong enacted a new misdemeanor treatment court Thursday, a program which will try to help provide offenders with addiction treatment at the misdemeanor level.
“When I am on the (misdemeanor) bench I see so many people who are in trouble, particularly young people with serious addiction issues,” Armstrong said. “When I first started it was a lot of opium/heroin addicts who were 18, 19, 20 years old and we have been seeing a lot of meth coming back and without intervention I see their lives progressing negatively, the criminality progressing, and I thought it would be good to do some intervening steps at this level.”
Though the program is aimed at helping those age 18-25, Armstrong said that the system will to exclude anyone.
“The plan is to positively intervene in some people’s lives,” Armstrong said. “That is the focus but we don’t want to exclude anyone, if you are in trouble and you are an addict and I think that you are serious about making positive changes, I am open to the possibility of you coming to my court.”
The misdemeanor treatment court will comprise of representatives from defense, prosecution and law enforcement, as well as treatment counselors and Armstrong. The team will pick a group of offenders based on needs. Each offender will meet with Armstrong individually every Thursday morning, where they will talk about the offender’s progress. Outside of the courtroom, the offender will be required to participate in a number of treatments including counseling and drug testing to make sure that they are staying on the right path. The goal is to make sure that the court replaces old, negative influences with positive ones.
“The best effects, that studies showed is that a few minutes with the judge is what really seems to have a lot of impact, why I don’t know but it seems to have an impact on long term success,” Armstrong said.“I think that contact with the judge keeps recovery in their mind and they know they have to come see me next week, they know I am never out of sight out of mind.
“Addiction and achieving sobriety is a difficult thing to do its even more difficult when your peer group is all using and the fact of the matter is when people are drug addicts they hang out with people who drug addicts and you have to find a way to replace that,” Armstrong added.
At the moment, the Carson City courts have a drug court, but only offenders with felony charges or convictions are eligible, however, even problems like misdemeanor crimes such as drug paraphernalia, petit larceny and other small crimes committed for drugs or drug money can indicate a dangerous path for addicts.
“They shouldn’t have to wait for a felony charge before we intervene with the intensive intervention,” Armstrong said. “I saw there was a gap for offenders who are just as in need of intervention but don’t have the felony criminal charge we were just waiting for them to get a felony to go to drug court and I was thinking ‘why are we waiting for that, why not intervene now?’”
Armstrong has been trying to put together this program since he was elected into office in 2011, but budget cuts and lack of financing made it impossible.
“This was a need that I recognized right away,” Armstrong said. “I just didn’t think that it would take me four years before I could address it.”
The program was able to get funds from the legislation when they budgeted money earmarked for specialty courts, and with what funding they have, Armstrong can take about 25 offenders, but hopes to grow that to at least 50 in the future.
“The savings to the community, not to mention the savings of the life itself, it is humongous,” Armstrong said. “Just taking one person who is a heroin addict and making them sober changes a lot, it has a ripple effect with them, their family, their children, with generations to come with everyone they have come in contact with. A lot can come of one success story.”
However, Armstrong realizes that success won’t come easily or it may not come at all for some offenders.
“I hope that everyone I see will turn it around and succeed, but I know that won’t always be the case,” Armstrong said.
In order to try to help keep the offenders committed to the treatment, they will have sanctions and rewards when they succeed or do poorly during the treatment.
One of the big sanctions is jail time. If the offender can go through the treatment program, they may be able to reduce the time on their sentence while they are out on bond.
The program incorporates various community organizations to come together to help these offenders. Armstrong recruited several agencies to help with inpatient and outpatient treatment. He said that all the agencies involved are dedicated to helping addicts overcome their problems, however he needs to see that the offender is really committed to the program.
“Some people think that it may just be a way to stay out of jail and to avoid accountability, I just want to make sure that everyone knows that is not the case because if you are going to work the program, if you are committed (you can stay), and if you aren’t going to put into this what I think you should be putting into this then I’m not going to tolerate it,” Armstrong said. “We aren’t going to use the resources that we have for someone who isn’t committed and who isn’t using them for what they need to do, there is someone else who could use the spot and I am not going to spend my time with someone who is going to play games with the court.”
Armstrong said that he does believe that people will be sincere with the program and that there will be addicts who are there to really make a change, but it will be a difficult journey.
“I am not interested in hand picking people who are going to be success stories,” Armstrong said. “I’m interested in taking the challenging cases who really need to succeed and I am not interested in taking the people who could get better without this treatment, it is for people who really need it. Its going to be challenging and we will have failures, but we will also have successes and that is what I am excited for.”
The road will be long for both Armstrong and the program participants, estimated recovery can be months to years.
“It takes a year or longer for recovery to stick, it’s a long process and we have to take the long view of what we are doing with these people and hopefully we can make some positive changes,” Armstrong said.