ST. JOSEPH — Rita Miller's criminal history began in 1995; however, her drug history started in the mid-1980s.
By the time police arrested her for stealing, Miller had nursed a cocaine habit for about a decade. The St. Joseph woman eventually shook the grasp of cocaine through Buchanan County's drug court and now has been clean for five years. But had her four previous attempts at rehabilitation involved a conviction, Miller wonders whether prosecutors and Judge Dan Kellogg would have allowed her into the program at all.
"After a while they just assume: 'This person isn't going to change. They've been in the system too long,'" she said.
While area prosecutors and defense attorneys alike have praised Buchanan County's drug court for taking a different approach to dealing with addiction, that doesn't mean the two sides are in absolute agreement with how the program runs. The National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers released a report critical of drug courts in September, and one of its issues related to whom prosecutors and judges admit to the program.
Prosecutors can recommend a subject, or defense attorneys can request admittance for their clients into drug court. The prosecutor's office uses a set of criteria for screening applicants. Potential participants can't have been involved with significant drug dealing or have a history of assault, among other things. After the prosecutor approves someone, the judge also has to sign off before that person can enter the program. In rare cases, a judge will overrule the prosecution's rejection of an applicant, thus granting access for that individual to the program.
Judge Kellogg runs one of the county's two drug courts, and he said he believes the program is not for first-time offenders or the hard-core users who have failed enough times at rehab that it's not worth using the system's resources. Instead, the judge wants his court to target those people with multiple convictions who sit on the precipice of becoming long-term abusers.
It's a vision the prosecutor's office shares, but defense attorneys Dawn Williams and Sue Rinne believe the program should be more widely available.
"If somebody wants help, they should have the opportunity," said Williams, a former prosecutor and public defender who moved into the private sector. "As a defense attorney, I'm continually frustrated with the prosecutor being the gatekeeper."
In her experience, Miller met addicts who went to 15 different treatment centers before finally quitting for good. County Prosecutor Dwight Scroggins noted in his interview with the St. Joseph News-Press that the average number of relapses for addicts ranges from five to seven before they finally get clean. Miller sees her story as an example that even hard-core, long-term users can succeed in the program.
But to Assistant Prosecutor Robert Reinhardt, it's a matter of the most efficient use of the county's resources.
"I don't think there is any skimming. It's just a realistic assessment of what's been tried in the past and what hasn't worked, and the chances of success in the future," said Mr. Reinhardt, who handles the prosecution for most of the county's drug cases. "Once you've gotten all that treatment and you're still re-offending, I don't necessarily think the drug court is going to be much help."
Rinne, the director of the county's public defender office, also sees a problem with a misdemeanor assault charge from 10 years ago disqualifying a potential participant from the program.
"Crimes of violence must not be categorically excluded," she said.
But to prosecutors, it's a matter of safety and funding. Kristina Zeit, the prosecutor's office's representative in the county's drug court, said she believes excluding offenders with a violent past protects probation and parole officers who work closely with the program's participants on a daily basis. Federal and state grants also account for the program's existence, and one of the stipulations for that money is that Buchanan County's court not include violent offenders.
As a result, the county doesn't have much flexibility on its policy against violent offenders, but Judge Kellogg has long extended an invitation for local defense attorneys to be more involved in drug court. Typically, defense attorneys are present at the beginning of the process during the plea period, and then again if prosecutors try to revoke probation. But the public defender office has abstained from participating in team meetings, and few attorneys follow their clients through the program.
"How can you criticize not being involved when you are the one who has chosen not to be involved?" Scroggins said of the public defenders.
Rinne responded that it's a topic she plans to revisit in the near future, but has some trepidation that joining the drug court "team" would compromise her office's ethical obligation to be zealous advocates for their clients.
"Whether we can attend those staffings and advocate for our clients at those staffings is a legitimate question," she said, "and one that we're kind of struggling with right now."