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Putnam prosecutor says drug court might be last chance for offenders

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- The creation of an adult drug court in Putnam County might be the last opportunity officials have to save drug offenders from prison time, the county's prosecutor said last week.

Newly elected Putnam Circuit Judge Joseph Reeder, who took office in December, said he's beginning to organize the adult drug court, which he said he wanted to create during his election campaign.

"We are in the early stages," Reeder said of the court, scheduled to start in June. "We have been in contact with officials in other counties and we intend to observe what they are doing in those counties to see if what they are doing may be applicable to Putnam County."

Putnam Prosecuting Attorney Mark Sorsaia said the adult drug court is an obvious step for the county, which is dealing with a rising jail bill from prescription drug and heroin abuse, among other things.

"I think it's a good idea and the next step for us to take here. We've done most other things -- the juvenile drug court, community corrections and day report," Sorsaia said. "Anything we can do to try to deal with the drug problem is a good thing."

Sorsaia told county commissioners last month that in the past two years, felony cases have gone up by 20 percent mainly because of drugs. Commissioners have been trying to come up with ways to deal with the regional jail bill, which has gone up about $300,000 in two years.

However, Sorsaia said he doesn't see the jail bill going down anytime soon, especially if the state doesn't create a drug treatment center.

"I don't know what else we can do. [The adult drug court] is the last thing we haven't tried.... It'll help, anything is needed, but I think we've maxed out our diversion capabilities," he said.

One problem that judges and prosecutors often face is a decision about whether to put a repeat drug offender behind bars, according to Sorsaia. And it's not a matter of whether they're a non-violent offender anymore.

"They're killing themselves," he said. "I've had parents tell me, 'I would rather visit my child in prison than visit them in the cemetery,'" Sorsaia said. "I've had parents call and ask me, 'Will you please lock my child up because I'm afraid they're killing themselves.' We do it all the time."

The adult drug court might especially help younger adults who have a chance to get their lives back on track, according to Sorsaia.

"The people I worry about are those between 18 and 30 that are struggling with addiction while just starting their lives out," he said. "If they can beat the addiction they can potentially have a future."

Drug courts act as a diversionary program for people who are addicted to drugs and have been charged with relatively minor crimes. In Kanawha County, which established its drug court in 2009, participants can take an extensive testing, counseling and community-service program run by the court system to help them control their substance-abuse problems in lieu of jail time. If they complete the program, prosecutors agree to dismiss their criminal charges.

Kanawha's program has graduated 38 participants. Only 13.8 percent of those were arrested again after completing the program. In all, Kanawha Circuit Judge Jennifer Bailey has told the Gazette that the county has saved $2.36 million on its regional jail bill because of the program.

Reach Kate White at kate.white@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1723.


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