Drug court has almost two decades helping addicts rebuild 

click to enlarge San Mateo County's drug court
  • San Mateo County's drug court provides addicts with more services and follow-up care.

Six men, along with family and court officials, gathered recently in the San Mateo County Board of Supervisors' chambers to be recognized for their graduation from a program designed to help addicts rebuild their lives.

The ceremony May 31 crowned the men's 18-month participation in San Mateo County's drug court — a program that uses treatment to address the complex issue of narcotics addiction, Judge Richard Livermore said. While the journey to sobriety for the men is just beginning, drug court is a strong first step.

The drug court program was founded in the mid-1990s and graduates between 45 and 80 people per year, Livermore said. The recent graduating class was smaller than the average class, which usually has between 10 to 15 participants.

"At first, I didn't want to go into the program," said program graduate Brandon F., who did not want his full name used. "But today, I'll have 21 months sober."

Brandon said he now has a full-time job, is enrolled in his first semester at college and cares for his 19-month-old daughter.

"She's never seen me high, and I plan to keep it that way," he said.

The drug court is vital to a county with a jail so overcrowded that it's building another one.

"With one-tenth of the money given to a prison, we'll treat the same number of people in recovery," says Livermore, who presides over the drug court. And there's a considerably lower recidivism rate of about 20 to 25 percent, he added.

"We don't consider cost when it comes to prison," said David Mann of The Other Bar, a network of recovering lawyers and judges in California. "But cost is the main limiting factor for treatment programs like the drug court. ... The things you do when you're high, the public does not want, and will not tolerate."

According to county District Attorney Steve Wagstaffe, the drug court accounts for about 5 percent of the total narcotics-related cases his office prosecutes.

One of the reasons for the drug court's success is its multifaceted approach to treatment. The program includes counseling, group meetings and intensive assistance from the judge and probation department, Wagstaffe said. Resources available to drug court participants are greater, including finding jobs and housing, he said.

Drug court also tends to change the attitude of judges, said Don Horsley, a former sheriff who now sits on the county Board of Supervisors. Normally impersonal judges become involved with the participants on a personal level, he said.

Livermore said the weekly appearances required by program participants are vital to the process because it allows him to ask direct questions and evaluate progress.

The drug court is designed to deal with one dimension of the drug problem — the addicts, or demand side.

"I don't think we're ever going to deal with the supply side," Livermore said. "It's always going to be there."

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