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Vanderburgh County Drug Courts - 
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Posted On: January 16, 2001          Updated On: January 16, 2002
© Terence T. Gorski, 2001

Vanderburgh County Drug Courts - 
A Cost-Effective Solution That Works 

<Read It On The Courier Press Website>
For Information Contact Debbie at Dmjs@aol.com 

Tough Love

January 6, 2002

The Issue: Two county judges offering creative efforts. 
Our View: In the end, they may keep people out of jail.

From the Courier & Press: The endless debate over whether a new county jail should have 400 or 500 or 600 beds for inmates - convicted and unconvicted, violent criminals and harmless misdemeanants - reflects accurately the nation's acceptance of blanket justice. Build those cells and then fill them up - it's easy and it's politically correct.

But it is also expensive, in terms of money - thus the debate that runs from $35 million to $60 million - and of human lives. Not every person arrested needs to be in jail; rather, some can benefit and go through life-altering changes with thoughtful alternative programs.

Unfortunately, the standard operating procedure in Vanderburgh and other counties in Indiana, and other states, has for too long been mass lock-ups. That's why our jail is usually full and why we are going to spend our good tax money building an even larger jail.

It is probably too late now to reverse thinking and reduce the jail population through alternative programs. Despite the current standoff between county officials, a larger jail is going to be built. Even so, there are some positive signs. Not since the days of retired Vanderburgh County (Evansville, Indiana) Circuit Judge William H. Miller has the county seen such creative thinking by local judges as is now being demonstrated.

Of course, Miller was the judge who launched the county's community corrections program, the SAFE House, which grew into the state's largest such program. And now, we commend for your attention two of the newer county judges, Superior Court Judge Wayne Trockman and Juvenile Court Judge Brett Niemeier.

Through Trockman's initiative, the county now has a Drug Court, profiled last week in a three-part series by Evansville Courier & Press staff writer Byron Rohrig. On Wednesday, the County Council voted unanimously to approve a request from Trockman for $40,000 to help the still-new program along. He told the council that the court is doing some "very interesting and worthwhile work."

We agree. Nonviolent defendants who are substance abusers are subjected to an intense day-reporting program. That means they must be personally accountable for their recovery. Early in the program, they must report to the court office every single day, and know they may have to submit to an unannounced urine test.

If they keep it up, they may not go back to jail, ever. If they fail to comply with all the requirements, they go back to court to face the charges that got them in trouble in the first place. And they may end up in jail.

Rohrig called Trockman the chief tough-lover, and it fits. The choice - and it's not an easy one for addicts and alcoholics - is to do it the judge's new way or the criminal justice system's old way.

It's not a big program - currently there are some 23 participants, so its impact on jail overcrowding is not significant. After all, judges estimate that 75 percent to 85 percent of criminal cases in Vanderburgh County are directly or indirectly tied to substance abuse. And more than 1,700 criminal cases were filed in Vanderburgh County last year. But the program can have an impact on individuals and their families. It may do what a jail cell will not, and that is, help turn them into productive citizens, sometimes for the first time in their lives. That's what a successful recovery from substance abuse can do for people.

In Juvenile Court, Niemeier has just completed his first year in succession of longtime (and now retired) Judge Robert Lensing. Niemeier, a tough deputy prosecutor before moving to the bench, has impressed former critics with what has been described as a collaborative style. Just recently, we commented on this page on one of his programs in which troubled truants are required to spend longer days in the classroom. They don't get suspended from school or placed in half-day programs. They go from 7:30 a.m. to 5 p.m., making a regular school day not look so bad.

Through this and other efforts, Niemeier is attempting to keep children who are on probation or involved with the court in school and out of trouble.

Admittedly, both of these judges are dealing with individuals who have some promise of better lives. Neither juveniles, by their age, nor nonviolent drug abusers, by their behavior, are hardened criminals.

Still, it is a hopeful sign for the criminal justice system that these two judges are willing to attempt initiatives that steer people in trouble toward that better life.

The consequences of what they do in the courtroom, working with these people, can bring a far richer reward than mere political popularity. Their efforts help people, and, yes, they even empty a few sleeping mats on the floor of the county jail.

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