Cheshire County makes strides with a new drug court

The Sentinel Source

The recent effort to start a felony-level drug court in Cheshire County is a reflection of growing emphasis nationwide on rehabilitating criminals. With emerging information showing these specialized courts contribute to safer communities while saving taxpayer dollars, that’s good news for local residents.

And news that a pilot of the new court will open next week, months ahead of schedule, reflects county officials’ commitment to achieving that goal.

Cheshire County was first in the state to establish an alternative sentencing program more than a decade ago. The program operates as something of a hybrid of drug and mental health court models, providing drug addiction and mental health treatment to people accused of misdemeanor-level (and some non-violent felony-level) crimes in place of serving jail time. After a three-year federal start-up grant ended the county picked up funding. But in recent years the program has come under the budget knife multiple times, with the county’s delegation of state representatives — the body that sets the annual county budget — looking for data showing the program is effective at cutting jail costs and keeping criminals from re-offending. County funding has continued, but at a level program officials have said barely keeps the doors open.

The two federal grant applications the county officials submitted this year — for $350,000 and $975,000 — would pay for the county to run a more traditional drug court, similar to ones in operation in Rockingham, Grafton and Strafford counties. In those courts, a dedicated team including a judge, prosecutor, public defender, case worker and treatment provider meet weekly in court with participants enrolled in the program to supervise their treatment progress and other aspects of sentencing such as community service and drug testing. Cheshire County officials say they expect to hear by September whether they’ve received federal funding for the drug court. They decided to pilot the program this month with one or two cases, and say it won’t cost the county much thanks in large part to donated substance abuse treatment from Keene’s Phoenix House, a nonprofit treatment facility.

And county officials aren’t stopping there. They’ve said the drug court is part of a broader initiative to improve support for people with substance abuse issues and mental illnesses who commit crimes, including those who have a hard time integrating into the community when they’re released from jail. In recent years, jail officials have focused heavily on preparing inmates for release by connecting them to drug and mental health treatment providers and helping them find housing so they don’t end up in the city’s homeless shelters. Earlier this year, Southwestern Community Services, a Keene-based social services agency, opened a transitional housing program called Second Chance for Success near the jail where former inmates can rent an apartment and get help finding work as they get back on their feet. To connect these efforts, the county has also applied for a $600,000 federal grant for a program supporting community integration of inmates at high risk of re-offending that would start 90 days before an inmate’s release and continuing six months after.

It’s clear this holistic approach to putting people who commit crimes onto a stable path to stay out of further trouble is sensible. Yet with any new initiative that requires investment, county officials will undoubtedly face stumbling blocks along the way when it comes to justifying funding for these programs. By keeping a clear accounting of how, specifically, these programs benefit society in a way that is more cost-effective than throwing people in jail, they can help to ensure that important long-term goals don’t end up being swept aside for short-term budget fixes.