Drug court nears opening

WINCHESTER — The first drug treatment court in the northern Shenandoah Valley will get down to cases within a matter of few weeks, opening the way for a new approach in how the criminal justice system deals with drug offenders.

Public Defender Timothy Coyne, one of those who led the effort to create the court, explained Wednesday how it will work when the first hearing is conducted in a Frederick County courtroom at 2 p.m. on Aug. 15.

Coyne told a small gathering at a public forum that the court will work with offenders deemed to be high risks for re-offending and most in need of effective treatment and follow-up rehabilitation.

“We want the toughest cases,” Coyne said, adding that this “is a program that will deal with them as they haven’t been dealt with before in the criminal justice system.”

Those eligible for the program must be residents of Winchester, Frederick County and Clarke County, the three local governments, which, along with Valley Health, are paying for the drug court’s annual $195,000 budget.

The program is also limited to those who have violated terms of their probation as a result of drug use or charged with non-violent felonies deemed to have been spawned by drug dependency or alcohol.

The application process begins with a defendant asking his defense attorney to fill out a questionnaire that must also be filled out by the commonwealth’s attorney, probation officer, drug coordinator and clinical coordinator. If the defendant answers all questions satisfactorily, the defense attorney and commonwealth’s attorney try to negotiate a plea agreement under which the defendant enters a guilty plea in return for enrollment in the drug court. Like with all plea agreements, those enrolling in the drug court program are subject to a judge’s approval.

Defendants must also pay $900 at a rate of $75 a month, a fee that Coyne said gives them “skin in the game.”

It shows they are invested in this program as well,” Coyne added.

The plea agreement allows the defendant to forgo a jail sentence in return for participating in a rigorous treatment and rehabilitation program that is scheduled to last a year, but in reality is likely to last much longer.

Attendance at court hearings, adherence to treatment requirements, drug screens, work, community service and vocational training are among the obligations that drug court participants are expected to fulfill.

“This is not walk in the park for offenders,” Coyne said. “There’s a lot on their plate they have to go through week in and week out.”

Coyne said the first graduation ceremony for those who have successfully completed the drug treatment program probably won’t be scheduled until next fall.

The program began accepting applicants on July 1. Coyne said two of the 11 applications received so far have been rejected, with the other nine still pending.

Contact staff writer Joe Beck at 540-465-5137 ext. 142, or jbeck@nvdaily.com