Drug court, money for busts, on tap for Carroll County?

Monday, November 29, 2004

Carroll County could be getting a drug court in Berryville in late 2005.

Meanwhile, Carroll County will likely see more money for busting methamphetamine labs.

The two developments hinge on budget appropriations from the Arkansas Legislature and the U.S. Congress.

On Monday, U.S. Representative John Boozman announced that $300,000 earmarked for the COPS Methamphetamine Drug Hot Spots Program was included in the Fiscal Year 2005 appropriations conference report passed by the House of Representatives on Nov. 20.

That money, specifically for raiding meth labs, would be administered by the Arkansas State Police, which has a reputation among local law enforcement of taking the lion's share of funds coming its way.

However, according to Charlotte Shasteen of Rep. Boozman's Washington, D.C., office, the representative has had frequent discussions with ASP officials and feels confident that the funds will largely be directed to his Third District, where the majority of the state's meth labs are.

"This is a start," Shasteen said, adding that Boozman's office is working on more resources to help fight the meth problem, particularly in rural areas such as Carroll County.

Also on Monday the Arkansas Department of Community Correction asked state legislators for the money to add 10 drug courts in the state, at a cost of about $1.7 million per year.

Along with Berryville, the proposed new courts would be in Osceola, Newport, Heber Springs, Booneville, Camden, Harrison, Des Arc, Dumas and Hope. Currently the state has 27 drug courts.

The idea behind drug courts is to give nonviolent, mostly first-time offenders a chance to avoid jail in exchange for strict participation in an intensive treatment and probation program.

Carroll County Prosecuting Attorney Tony Rogers stated Tuesday that he was in contact with David Guntharp, director of the Department of Community Correction, last fall, and was told that he would include Carroll COunty in his requests for drug courts.

Meanwhile, Rogers said, State Senator Randy Laverty has been pushing hard for a Carroll County drug court.

"He's helped a lot,

the prosecutor said. "Hopefully we will have it up and running after July 1."

Rogers indicated that at least two more probation officers will be needed for a drug court. "We can only move as fast as the legislative process allows," he said, "but I feel we have a good chance to be one of the additions."

Attorney Cindy Baker, whose practice involves considerable criminal defense work, has repeatedly pushed for plea agreements similar in nature to how drug courts operate. She was not available for comment on Tuesday.

Carroll County Circuit Judge Alan D. Epley stated that he looks forward to trying to implement a drug court in Carroll County, but that he had little information about developments in that direction.

He said that drug manufacturers and those in possession of paraphernalia used to manufacture drugs, regardless of the drug, are not eligible for drug court, and are processed through criminal court.

Epley said that he understands that in drug courts across the state, defendants have to enter a plea of guilty, and then the plea is deferred pending completion of the program. If the persons satisfactorily completes the program, the charges are dismissed.

"If they cannot, and test dirty, and if they seriously abuse of the drug court program so that they do not benefit, they come back into circuit court and are sentenced pursuant to the plea that had been deferred," Epley said.

Court officials hope such courts will help cure drug addiction, and that participants won't offend again. It is also believed that the new drug courts will also remove many drug-related crimes clogging dockets of circuit and district courts.

The drug court program has received praise from judges in Washington, Sebastian and Pulaski counties, but David Guntharp, director of the Department of Community Correction, said that the state needs a few more years to collect data before he could quantify the effect of drug courts of recidivism rates and prison costs.

The drug court proposal still has legislative hurdles to overcome. A prison and community-correction budget sub-committee took no action earlier on the department's request, saying they cannot approve agency requestions until Gov. Mike Huckabee announces a plan to come up with $80 million a year for school facilities improvements.

That budget plan was presented on Tuesday, and Richard Weiss of the Department of Finance and Administration stated that the sub-committee found it to be satisfactory, and indicated that the state's general revenues budget, which includes the drug courts proposal, can go on to the legislature for consideration early next year.

The new drug courts would cost $1.7 million in fiscal 2006, which starts on July 1, 2005, and $1.5 million in fiscal 2007. That money would include 34 new positions and, particularly in fiscal 2006, several replacement vehicles.

The department also seeks $1.2 million a year for 13 new probation and parole officers.

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