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Legally Speaking


Issue: August, 2008
Author: Gregory J. Blenkinsop

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Drug Courts in Wyoming

What is a Drug Court? Drug Courts are not actually courts at all. They are team-based programs operated under the supervision of a magistrate or judge designed to stop the cycle of substance abuse and the criminal activity associated with it. These programs often deal with issues other than drugs and are also referred to as problem-solving courts.

The first Drug Court in the United States began in Miami-Dade County, Florida, in 1989. Since that time the Drug Court movement has swept across the country and there are now 2,147 Drug Courts in the nation. As discussed in further detail below, Drug Courts reduce recidivism, save money, and enable people to rebuild their lives through recovery from the abuse of alcohol and controlled substances.

Drug Courts in Wyoming
In Wyoming the decision to start a Drug Court is made at the local level. Each one is designed and implemented locally to best serve the individual community’s needs. Starting a program requires the voluntary participation from local team members. Statutorily required team members in Wyoming include the judge, prosecuting attorney, defense attorney, probation officer, and the treatment provider. Other members may be added to the team. Drug Courts around Wyoming often have a wide variety of professionals on their teams including members of law enforcement, elected officials and educators. The Federal Government offers grants to local teams to help with the start up process and train members on how to operate a Drug Court.

The team approach affords interaction and sharing of ideas with a diverse group of professionals which is not available in the traditional criminal justice setting. This collaborative approach enables the establishment of relationships that benefit Drug Court participants as well as the Drug Court professionals. The traditional adversarial approach is not part of Drug Courts and many team members find themselves taking positions far different from ones assumed in their customary roles.

Participants in Drug Court voluntarily enter the programs usually as a term of their probation. The programs all utilize a combination of mandatory court appearances, judicial supervision, strict supervised probation, frequent alcohol and drug testing along with intensive alcohol and drug treatment. The team discusses participants’ program performance prior to regularly scheduled court sessions. During the court sessions the team may take immediate action to reward program successes or impose sanctions for rule violations. A participant progresses through program levels as he/she achieves success in his/her recovery. The participants’ ultimate goal is successful graduation from the program.

According to the Wyoming Department of Health, alcohol-related arrests in Wyoming are twice the national average. In addition, drug-related crime and assault arrests have increased nearly 25% in the last ten years.

Drug Courts in Wyoming have come to play a prominent role in battling the problem of substance abuse as well as reducing crime and recidivism. In 1997 the first Drug Court in Wyoming was established in Uinta County and Sheridan County followed suit the next year. As the efficacy of the programs became clear to local communities in Wyoming, Drug Courts have steadily expanded in numbers. There are now 25 adult, juvenile, and family treatment programs in 17 of Wyoming’s 23 counties. As of 2007, Wyoming had one of the highest per capita rates of Drug Courts in the nation with one per approximately 21,000 Wyoming citizens. In Wyoming these programs are carried out in Juvenile, Municipal, Circuit, and District Courts.

Success of Drug Courts is measurable in terms of both crime reduction and societal cost savings. The Government Accountability Office, in February 2005, concluded that Drug Courts lower crime by reducing re-arrest and conviction rates among graduates of Drug Courts compared to control group members. Placement in a Drug Court program is often made in lieu of a jail or prison sentence. From a cost perspective, Drug Courts offer significant savings over incarceration. In Wyoming, as of 2004, the estimated average cost of adult incarceration was $89.54 per day and $173.00 per day for juveniles. In contrast, Drug Court participants only cost $21.91 per day; slightly more than the $17.67 average cost per day of probation/parole. The Drug Court participant is often working, paying taxes, child support etc., thereby reducing his/her burden on society.

Considering the benefits of reduced crime and cost savings, it is no wonder Drug Courts have been so popular in Wyoming. As a result of these proven advantages over incarceration, enthusiastic support at the county level exists throughout the state.

Concerns About Drug Courts
As Drug Courts expand rapidly in Wyoming, concerns have arisen regarding the proper role of courts and judges, participants’ constitutional rights, conflicts of interest, and whether sufficient statutory authority exists to operate the programs. These concerns are valid and need to be addressed at the local and state level. Wyoming can look to other states that have dealt with these issues to obtain guidance on how to ensure the state’s Drug Courts operate in a legal, fair manner. Members of Wyoming’s Judicial, Legislative and Executive branches are working hard to ensure that these concerns are properly addressed.

Wyoming has been particularly hard hit by substance abuse. The negative effects on society are incalculable. Wyoming’s vanguard position in the establishment of Drug Courts plays an important role in the effort to reduce the harmful consequences of substance abuse on our citizens. While much work needs to be done to ensure that Drug Courts operate properly, the profound benefits received warrant Wyoming’s continued utilization of these programs.

Gregory J. Blenkinsop is a 1995 graduate of the University of Wyoming College of Law and is currently a senior assistant public defender. He is the Supervising Attorney for the Public Defender’s Office in Teton and Sublette Counties. He is the Defense Attorney Representative on the Teton County Adult DUI-Drug Court in Jackson and has served on the Alcohol and Drug Court of Sublette County and the Family Treatment Court of Teton County.

The author wishes to thank Daniel M. Hesse, an attorney from Auburn, Wyoming, Anne Comeaux, Teton County DUI-Drug Court Coordinator, and Jonathan W.M. Rivinus, Jr., Juris Doctor Candidate 2010, University of Colorado for their contributions to this article.

Copyright © 2008 – Wyoming State Bar