Two new specialty courts are debuting in Denver this month, both with the aim of steering people struggling with drugs and addiction out of the criminal justice system.
One court, opening this week, will serve those charged with misdemeanor drug possession and focus on harm reduction, rather than punishment. A second court, expected to begin in mid-March, will handle cases involving people charged with more serious felonies but whose criminal behavior appears to be motivated by drug addiction.
“This was a high-need area, because I do believe that we can do a better job in the system with people that have drug addiction and alcoholism,” said Denver District Attorney Beth McCann, whose office has been coordinating with the courts, police department, public defenders, judges, probation officers and others to establish the new programs.
“It’s really an effort to [do a] couple things: One is to reduce the number of people in the criminal justice system. And secondly, it’s really to look at this more as a public health issue,” McCann said.
HEM COURT AIMS FOR HARM REDUCTION
The misdemeanor drug court, dubbed the HEM Court, will begin hearing cases this week. While the letters are meant to represent “helping,” “engaging” and “motivating,” the court was originally named to bear the initials of Assistant District Attorney Helen Morgan who, McCann said, “has been instrumental in pushing this agenda forward and organizing the stakeholders and really getting this new way of thinking underway in our Denver County Court.”
The program was made possible by a state law passed last year making possession of less than four grams of most drugs a misdemeanor, rather than a felony. The law goes into effect March 1.
People arrested for misdemeanor drug possession will be assessed in jail by pre-trial services to see if they’re suitable for HEM Court, based on their receptiveness to drug and addiction treatment and other factors, according to McCann. Those who enter the program will meet with a case manager over the course of the program, which will last about eight weeks, and they’ll be issued vouchers for treatment programs and directed toward housing, employment and other resources as needed.
Depending on the seriousness of the offense, participants might enter a guilty plea for a lesser misdemeanor, while others will have their cases dismissed upon completion of the program. Those who choose the program but don’t successfully complete it will face a 10-day jail sentence, McCann said.
About five or six people are arrested each day in Denver for drug possession of less than four grams, according to McCann. While some might choose to fight the charges in regular court, McCann said her office hopes and expects most will go the HEM Court route.
All HEM cases will be handled by Magistrate Melissa Annis.
DIVERT COURT TARGETS UNDERLYING ADDICTION
The second court, scheduled to start later this month, is the DIVERT Court for those who commit more serious crimes — assault, robbery, burglary — but have an underlying drug problem. Prosecutors, public defenders and judges will be able to refer people who are at high risk of reoffending and would benefit from addiction treatment instead of prison.
People charged with first- and second-class felonies — including murder, kidnapping and the highest-level drug offenses — won’t be eligible to participate, nor will sex offenders or domestic abusers.
Those referred to DIVERT Court will undergo extensive treatment and monitoring programs by the probation department and health care providers. The probation department will determine guidelines for success, according to McCann, but a relapse won’t be grounds for automatic removal from the program.
DIVERT Court will serve as a “last chance” alternative to prison for people facing significant time and struggling with drug problems, McCann said. “For people who are on their last leg, if you will, in the criminal justice system, we’re hoping that we can really change lives and turn some lives around,” she added.
McCann said she hopes the DIVERT Court will eventually be able to serve 200 to 300 people annually. Like the HEM Court, there will be a dedicated judge to handle all cases on the DIVERT docket.
“The beauty of having a specific judge is those judges really get to know the people and can tell if the person is just stringing the court along or if there’s really been a sincere effort,” McCann said.
NEW APPROACHES, CHANGING ROLES
The new courts will require police and probation officers to step outside their usual roles a bit. For the HEM Court, especially, probation officers will act as case managers to figure out what each defendant needs to stay off drugs and out of the criminal system. The change in the misdemeanor drug law increased funding to the Denver County Court and allowed the court’s probation department to hire several additional officers to help with drug cases.
The police department has also had to shift its approach. The Denver Crime Lab’s narcotics division has prepared a primer for police officers so they can recognize what four grams of cocaine or meth looks like, McCann said. “Because it’s a brand-new program, we are expecting there’ll be some hiccups along the way,” she added.
According to data from the Denver Police Department, the amount of narcotics Denver police are arresting people for has increased in gross weight by 300 – 400% in the past four months.
McCann said that’s likely because officers and detectives have already reprioritized to focus resources on bigger drug sales and distribution cases.
McCann also recognized the role of public defenders in setting up the program. “They’ve been part of the group from the beginning. We couldn’t do it without their participation and support,” she said, adding they gave suggestions and weighed in during the planning process to raise legal concerns.
— Jessica Folker