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EXCLUSIVE: Vermonters using less of treatment courts due to alternative sentencing

By Michael Bielawski,

At a time when both crime and drug use are at record highs, fewer Vermonters may be utilizing treatment courts - intended to incentivize drug-abuse recovery services - due to an abundance of other alternative sentencing programs.

The Vermont Judiciary website details that treatment courts have been around in Vermont since the first one appeared in 2003 in Rutland. Now, six such courts in the state and at least 500 Vermonters have completed their treatment programs.

The site states, “These dockets offer individuals with substance use disorders and mental health conditions the opportunity to enter treatment and avoid certain consequences, such as incarceration or termination of parental rights. The goals of these dockets include keeping communities safe, supporting treatment for participants, and ending defendants' criminal or harmful conduct.”

Public advocacy groups such as Vermont Roots and Wings Alliance have strongly endorsed the effectiveness of the courts. “[VRWA] believes that access to Treatment Courts can be increased across the state so that all criminal justice-involved persons suffering from a substance use disorder or mental health disorder can recover,” their site states.

Not motivated to change behaviors?

With a litany of new options over the years of diversionary programs for criminals suffering from drug abuse, a 2022 Vermont Judiciary report called “Process Evaluation Results: Statewide Strengths & Priorities for Improvement” has determined that some abusers may now be less inclined to address their addictions.

“A potentially unintended consequence of these reform efforts is reduced incentivization for participation in treatment courts for those charged with drug offenses, which in turn, means individuals may be less likely to be connected to needed substance use disorder treatment,” their report states. “Overall, criminal justice reform efforts in Vermont have led to a significant reduction in referrals. The results of this evaluation need to be considered within the challenges occurring at the national and state levels.”

The report lists some of the programs that may be unintentionally drawing people away from treatment courts.

“Additionally, in 2017, the Youthful Offender Statute made the population aged 18 – 22 years eligible for diversion when they would have previously been referred to treatment court. High-risk/high-need young adults typically referred to treatment court are now diverted to the Tamarack Diversion Program.”

Another such program was Act 61 introduced in 2017 which allowed defendants with substance abuse-related disorders and mental health issues to be eligible for diversion regardless of their criminal history.

“Previously, only a first or second misdemeanor or first non-violent felony were eligible. As a result of this legislation, high-risk/high-need participants that would benefit from the intensive services and strict accountability of the treatment court programs were diverted to other less rigorous diversionary programs,” the report states.

The result has been fewer people using treatment courts.

“Juvenile cases moved from criminal to Family Treatment Court until age 22 or other judicial disposition. The impact on the treatment court docket is immediately evident. The average age of participants in the treatment courts went from 29 years old in 2016 to an average age of 36 in 2022,” it states.

What to do with marijuana?

The legalization of marijuana by the State of Vermont has provided new challenges for the recovery of drug-addicted individuals. Some working in treatment programs suggest abstinence from smoking during treatments while others seem to think it can help those addicted to other drugs cope with their struggles.

The Judiciary report states, “Vermont team members expressed varying opinions on marijuana use in their role on the team, ranging from abstinence-only to allowing marijuana use as a form of harm reduction from other drugs.”

Overall a success

The Judiciary report makes a series of recommendations for treatment courts including accepting higher-risk offenders and enforcing abstinence from marijuana at least until further research can be done.

The report concludes, “In the focus groups, participants from all sites said the program promoted their sobriety and recovery. Thus, this indicates that Vermont’s treatment courts are effectively using response strategies that encourage behavioral change for participants.”

The author is a writer for the Vermont Daily Chronicle


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