Participation in the Carter County drug court system has dropped nearly 65 percent since criminal justice reform measure, State Question 780, went into effect Nov. 1, 2017.
SQ 780 changed certain non-violent drug and theft-related crimes from felonies to misdemeanors. Crimes like possession of CDS (meth), heroin or cocaine, as well as certain property offenses that were once considered felonies are now misdemeanors, which come with a maximum penalty of one year in prison and a fine of $1,000.
According to the Oklahoma Policy Institute, in SQ 780’s first year of operation, the new legislation effectively reduced felony filings by 28.4 percent. However, misdemeanors rose by 13.6 percent.
Due to the way SQ 780 was structured, Assistant District Attorney Aaron Taber, who oversees the Carter County Drug Court on a daily basis, said these changes have had some adverse effects on the way the system operates.
“I like the idea of 780 and what it tried to accomplish, but I don’t think it was structured in a way to get that done,” Taber said. “The whole idea behind 780 was to have less felonies, less people with felony records, but also to give them treatment, to give them help, to rehabilitate and it’s tough to do when they don’t have many repercussions to their actions.”
District Attorney Craig Ladd said SQ 780 has stripped away the leverage he once had to help people through the system.
“I have a great passion for what I do, but what I do is not just to try to punish people,” Ladd said. “Some of my proudest moments as a prosecutor have been whenever I could use the threat of incarceration against someone who is a good person, but they’ve got a horrible addiction.”
Drug Court, Ladd said, is designed to help people that are at least two time convicted felons and are non-violent. The program helps them stay clean by holding them accountable through drug tests and counseling.
“That was a big chunk of the people that are now misdemeanor offenders under 780,” Ladd said. The new legislation has severely limited the number of people who are able to apply for the drug court program, Taber said.
“What we would do is say ‘Alright, you’re not eligible for probation, so we’ll offer you five years in prison for this non-violent felony offense or you can go to drug court’,” Ladd said.
In the event that the individual did not successfully complete drug court, they would receive an enhanced sentence of typically two or three times more than the sentence they would receive if they pled guilty, Ladd said.
“It tended to be a very effective tool because it gave people motivation,” Ladd said. “You had the leverage of the possibility of incarceration to force people to take sobriety seriously.”
Now, if people plead guilty to a misdemeanor charge, the worst case scenario is spending six months in the county jail, Taber said. “They’re not willing to commit to a two-year drug court program or one-year inpatient rehab when they can just do a few months in the county jail,” Taber said.
Those who choose jail time often end up back where they started without any rehabilitation or counseling services, Taber said. “Usually we’ll see them again within a few months”
Broadway House Executive Director David Lowden said he is an example of a success story. Lowden pled into drug court in 2014 and later graduated in 2015, several years before SQ 780 went into effect.
“What they do is give you lots of boundaries and accountability, which we need as people who are used to using and drinking and doing what we want to do,” Lowden said. “When left to ourselves we just go back to doing what we know, which isn’t good.”
Lowden was able to obtain his current position in 2017 and now helps others suffering from addiction through recovery at Broadway House.
When there were 79 drug court participants in March 2017, Taber said the participants were able to help hold each other accountable. But now, with only 25, some of those positive effects have been lost.
“They’ve got to try to stay sober, so if you have larger numbers of people, you’re going to have people who can assist you,” Taber said. “Maybe they’re on phase five and the new person is on phase one — they can kind of help mentor them and walk them through the program.”
The drug court’s funding is also dependent on the number of participants, Taber said. State funding is allocated in order to provide drug tests and pay drug court personnel, including counselors and other mental health service providers.
“If they dwindle down too much lower then you’ve got to figure out if the program is really viable to keep it open,” Taber said.
Some counties have recently created misdemeanor drug courts, Taber said. However, because the programs are so new, officials are unsure whether they are effective yet. At this time, misdemeanor drug courts aren’t an option in Carter County, he said.
“If you had a misdemeanor drug court the most you could be looking at is one year in the county jail,” Taber said. “I don’t know if that is enough incentive for somebody to really change their behaviors or not.”
In a previous interview, Ladd said he believes at least 80 percent of the cases he has prosecuted have been drug related.
“It bleeds over into other offenses and it causes other offenses and it’s really become intertwined,” Ladd said. “I deal with a lot of people who are in the situations that they’re in because they’re abusing drugs.”
Drug court was one way Ladd said he could help these individuals recover. With such low numbers and much less leverage, however, Ladd and Taber said it may be difficult to keep the drug court program running.
“I think it’s going to be like less than half of what they had before 780 that are participants in the program and I don’t know that it can continue to exist,” Ladd said.