Gilbert finds merit in Chesterfield drug program

Todd Gilbert

Del. Todd Gilbert, R-Woodstock, a long time skeptic of treatment and rehabilitation programs for heroin addicts, has found an initiative he thinks may have some merit.

Gilbert, along with several other Republican lawmakers, recently visited the Chesterfield County jail where he came away impressed by an effort organized around inmates with a history of drug abuse counseling other inmates with the same problem.

Gilbert, who is chairman of the House of Delegates committee that oversees criminal justice legislation, said Chesterfield’s initiative may be worth considering as a pilot program in one or more other counties. At least some of the financial support might come from the state.

The Chesterfield County program differs from others by having inmates undergo treatment within the four walls of the jail and relying on other inmates as the main sources of counseling and accountability for those who break the rules of the program.

In some cases, inmates who have been released are readmitted voluntarily to the jail if they feel they need the support of the counseling group they left behind upon their release.

“I still believe they need to be held accountable for their crimes, regardless of what caused them to commit those crimes,” Gilbert said of drug addicts. “I still think they should respect the law and respect others’ property.

“But I do believe there’s a better way to deal with the addiction that brought people to jail.”

Lawmakers around the country trying to come to grips with the skyrocketing number of heroin overdoses and related crimes have been reconsidering previous attitudes that focused primarily on law enforcement and downplayed responses that included more efforts at treatment, rehabilitation, education and prevention.

The growing willingness to find alternatives to arrests and jail time helped fuel the recent creation of a drug court serving Winchester, and Frederick and Clarke counties. Drug court participants agree to submit to a tightly supervised program of treatment and rehabilitation in exchange for the judge and prosecution withholding the imposition of a jail sentence as long as the participants stick with the program.

Del. Chris Collins, R-Winchester, said he doubted any major treatment and rehabilitation initiatives will come out of Richmond next year while state lawmakers struggle with a revenue shortfall. The outlook should brighten after the state finances improve and programs like the drug court have a chance to prove themselves, Collins said.

“It’s going to take these programs being successful and individuals having some benefit from them,” Collins said.

State Sen. Jill Vogel, R-Upperville, said the Chesterfield program shows a welcome willingness to try new approaches to treatment and rehabilitation after years of emphasis on arrest and detention.

“We have to be willing to try new things,” Vogel said.

Gilbert, a former prosecutor who practices as a defense attorney, has opposed state funding for drug courts in the past, and continues to do so.

“I remain very skeptical about the drug court and its outcomes,” Gilbert said. “I’m hopeful that I’m wrong.

“When we were in Chesterfield, one of the inmates said he had been in drug court recently, and he relapsed and ended up in jail.”

Gilbert added that the inmate was “very dismissive” of his drug court experience and its “helpfulness” in overcoming his addiction.

Gilbert said the Chesterfield program may be limited in its applicability to other parts of the state. The commitment of Chesterfield Sheriff Karl Leonard to inmate rehabilitation may be harder to find among other sheriffs, Gilbert said. He also said regional jails such as the one in Warren County may lack the focus that comes with having a single sheriff overseeing the facility and any treatment program within it.

Nevertheless, Gilbert said current approaches to heroin addiction are failing, and the time has arrived to think about some well-planned treatment and rehabilitation programs to go with traditional law and order strategies.

“Law and order Republicans visiting a jail represents frustration at our inability to get a handle on this crisis that’s only getting worse by the day,” Gilbert said.

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