Drug court treatment plan launched on Kaua‘i

Kaua‘i now has a drug court, an alternative to imprisonment for drug offenders facing criminal charges, with treatment options and closer supervision by a drug counselor and probation officer.

Kaua‘i’s drug court, set up by the state Judiciary, is the latest one to open in the state. The system, unlike traditional prosecution, allows charges to be dismissed if defendants successfully complete 18 months of counseling, drug testing and possibly community service and job training.

“We are going to take the person and stop them from using drugs,” said drug court coordinator Alton Amimoto said at a hearing conducted by the joint House-Senate Taskforce on Ice and Drug Abatement at the County of Kaua‘i Council Chambers, at the Historic County Building Monday, Aug. 11. Amimoto at that hearing announced that the program has three clients with more being referred.

The first drug court hearing is scheduled for Tuesday, Aug. 19 at 8 a.m.

Drug court will allow prosecutors and public defenders to refer clients who are in need of treatment. Additionally, they will have time with judges regarding their progress through the programnon Kaua‘i, Circuit Court Judge Clifford L. Nakea.

Nakea estimated that in perhaps half of the cases he sees, drugs may play a part. The difference between traditional criminal prosecution and drug court is that judges will have frequent contact with defendants.

Accountability is hopefully the strongest motivation for the defendant, Nakea said: “The judges see them as frequently as they need to be redirected and (as) their course needs to be changed,” Nakea said, adding that in other drug courts, there has been no lag in sending a defendant straight to jail if they do not comply with the drug court requirements, because the agreement a defendant signs with drug court carries stricter requirements, Nakea said.

“(Judge Nakea) would be able to track the clients much more closely and be personally familiarized with the person’s status and able to put people in jail for short periods of time should they violate certain rules. It’s not unexpected, but it’s still not condoned. All the drug courts give so many ‘chances’ we bend over backward for the clients to succeed,” Amimoto said in a telephone interview conducted Tuesday.

“What we want to do is have them focus on their basic thoughts about what causes them to react a certain way, what presses them to seek out drugs,” Amimoto said.

Kaua‘i’s drug court is set up to handle 20 clients, but the number may be expanded as the program continues. Amimoto worked as a district court probation officer for 10 years and victim counselor in the Kaua‘i County Prosecutor’s Office for five years. Since 2002, he has been researching drug courts in Hawai‘i and in other states. Kaua‘i is the last drug court to be set up in the state, and is the only neighbor island program to employ an on-site substance abuse counselor who will be in charge of organizing individual and group counseling sessions.

Legislators two years ago set aside seed money to the state Judiciary to start drug courts, Amimoto said. He added that interested citizens are forming a non-profit agency to assist the drug court.

Early on, finding a substance abuse counselor certified by the state department of health was a problem, largely because private practice pays more, said Amimoto. This June they hired Araceli Gonzalez, a Kaua‘i resident for 18 years and a CSAC who was working with Dr. Gerald McKenna, CEO of Kaua‘i private treatment center Ke Ala Pono. Former family court probation officer Kimberly Nonaka was hired in June. The staff also includes clerk Tammy Kakutani. Last month an office was constructed in the ground floor of the Lihu‘e courthouse, in a space that formerly housed the state Department of Accounting and General Services.

Amimoto said he is finalizing partnerships with state and local agencies that will be able to help their clients, such as WorkWise, The Kaua‘i Bus and Adult Education.

“We would work much closer with these agencies because our caseload will be much lower than the average probation caseload,” Amimoto said.

As far as the cost-effectiveness of drug court, Amimoto said, “it’s cheaper to have a person on supervision than it is to have them locked up. The services in prison are limited. There’s no reason why a person wanting to move on with their lives wouldn’t want to go to drug court.”

“Everybody needs different treatment options, and I have spoken to some in the faith-based field. It’s not a ‘one treatment fits all’ thing…Every person that comes in will have unique needs and we’ll try to have much closer relationships with agencies than probation (the Judiciary’s Adult Probation Division) does.”

Referrals may also come from Adult Probation for probationers who were found to be in violation by doing drugs or being arrested.

“We do not want to have referrals of people that sell drugs. We would want the ‘standard’ drug user,” Amimoto said. At a first appearance in court, the prosecutor can agree that the person meets the basic criteria to come through drug court, or can be prosecuted through the regular system.

A one-month screening period will “weed out” applicants who don’t meet the strict criteria or who aren’t eligible. Drug testing and interviews are conducted. Drug court has already denied one applicant.

The program starts off with intensive supervision and counseling and tapers off after about 18 months. All sessions are conducted at the courthouse in Lihu‘e, though other space may become available in the future.

The first phase includes 3-4 months of intensive outpatient treatment, meaning each week, a person must attend three group meetings with the drug court’s substance abuse counselor, five individual counseling sessions, seven 12-step meetings and complete three to five urine analysis screenings.

The second phase is 10-12 months long, and each week includes four individual counseling sessions, three group sessions, five 12-step meetings and at two to four drug screenings. The last phase of the program, about 3 months, allows clients to be more independent, with individual counseling twice a week, one weekly group session, four 12-step meetings per week and at least one drug screening per week.

“They have to meet certain criteria to move onto the next phase. If they violate, they can be subject to repeating the phase or moving backwards,” Amimoto said.

“You cannot work until you’re stable. You can’t deal with your family until you can help yourself first,” Amimoto addressed issues such as holding a job or caretaking children while in the drug court program.

Nakea, Amimoto and representatives of the Kaua‘i prosecutor’s office and state public defender visited O‘ahu’s Drug Court judge and social workers, and have gone to a week-long training session for the National Judicial College in Reno, Nev.

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