Grafton County's Half-Full Drug Court Excludes Many Addicted Defendants

Mar 24, 2015

James Johnson's charge for selling heroin made him ineligible for drug court in Grafton County
Credit Emily Corwin / NHPR

While addiction and related crimes are on the rise in Grafton County, the county’s Drug Court is struggling to fill enough seats.  That’s even though clients who get a drug court offer can avoid incarceration, get access to affordable high-level addiction-treatment programs, and often have their conviction vacated after completion.

It's Lonely In Here

The Grafton County Drug Court accommodates 25 participants. Right now, there are only 13. After a graduation in May, the court will likely be down to 12 – the smallest roster since the program’s inception 8 years ago.  

Grafton County taxpayers put $320,000 toward the drug court last year. Based on participation that year, drug court cost about $19,000 per client. Compare that to Strafford and Rockingham Counties, each of which spent less than half that per person.

With a full roster, Grafton County would cut per person costs down by a third.

Your Crime Is Not Allowed

There are a number of reasons this could be happening. But many Public Defenders in Grafton County agree with the Littleton Public Defender’s Managing Attorney, Marcie Hornick. “There are too many restrictions on people getting into drug court,” she says, and “ the type of people it seems drug court could really help are not being given access to it.”

James Johnson might be one of those people.

To get into drug court, the County Attorney’s office has to give you a drug court offer. Johnson’s attorney, Public Defender Adam Hescock, tried to get an offer for Johnson.  He  was denied.

Johnson is 28 years old, and he’s spent much of the last decade behind bars.  Now, he’s back in Concord with a 2 and a half year to 5 year prison bid for selling heroin. “I thought they could help me, at least, give me a better structure to get clean and stay clean,” Johnson says, “I want [sobriety] so bad it’s not even funny. I don’t want this lifestyle anymore.”

“Selling heroin is absolutely not in our criteria,” says County Attorney Lara Saffo, when asked about Mr. Johnson.

Things Are Different In Strafford County

While most drug courts across the country accept addicts with small time, addiction-motivated sales charges, Grafton County does not.  

James Johnson might have had better luck if he lived in Strafford County. There, County Attorney Tom Velardi has even begun to take some addicts charged with violent crimes – a rare, but increasingly common move among established drug courts. “I think we’re more successful now because we’re taking on more challenging cases,” says Velardi.

In Grafton County, Attorney Saffo says she wants to expand to small time marijuana sales.  And in the last few months, she’s made 12 offers to people charged with theft, and 8 to people charged with burglary – an expansion from the court’s original limitation to possession offenses.

Heroin, she says, is out of the question.

Sending The Right Message

“Do we want to send the message that you sell heroin, you get caught, you get into drug court,” Saffo asks, “because my answer is I do not want that to be on the streets. I want people on the streets to think ‘I gotta steer clear of heroin.’”

“That is exactly the kind of person that you need to try to get into drug court,” argues the Public Defender, Marcie Hornick.  She says unless you treat the motivating addictions behind most frequent, egregious offenders, “you’re not going to prevent that sort of crime from getting in your community.”

National drug court experts like Christopher Deutsch of the National Association of Drug Court Professionals say all drug courts are different. But, Deutsch warns that research shows drug courts perform best when treating high-risk high-need offenders. “Typically,” Deutsch says, “those with long criminal histories, and severe addiction issues.”

Grafton County reports at least 18 of their program’s 100 participants were first-time offenders.

Who's Watching?

However, Attorney Saffo says, her drug court is different. While other counties have state-prison parole officers supervising clients, Grafton County does not.  Saffo says she isn’t sure the county’s Community Corrections officers have the resources to oversee higher-risk offenders.

However, Community Corrections Director, Lieutenant Nicole Cremo says if the drug court team all agreed on a defendant with heavier charges, “yes, that’s something I can get on board with.” She adds, “you can’t judge somebody based on just their charge.”

On a recent visit to a drug court hearing for newer clients, nine professionals gathered in the courtroom. The hearing took eight minutes; there was only one client.

A Chance To Change

Nevertheless – County Commissioner Michael Cryans says he’s not too concerned. “I mean would we like more in the program? Sure,” he says, “but the numbers we have received so far have validated that we would like to proceed along.”

And things may be changing for the drug court.  There’s now a new Alternative Sentencing Director overseeing things. And, the drug court team has met to begin addressing the problem.

Correction: A previous version of this story stated that the Attorney Saffo's office offered drug court only to individuals charged with possession-related offenses and occasionally forgery.  In fact, over the last two and a half months 50 percent of offers were made to defendants charged with burglary, theft, and other crimes.