Carson City's new Western Regional Drug Court, which heard its first cases this week, is designed to help seriously addicted users beat their addiction and give them a new chance at life.
Those arrested on charges of possession, use, or being under the influence of illegal drugs can choose between an intense, closely monitored rehabilitation program or take their chances in court.
Lyon County District Court Judge Archie Blake said it's a rigorous, tightly monitored program that works.
"It takes the criminal offender, gets them off drugs and makes them productive citizens," he said. "They have to have jobs, pay for their treatment and complete their high school education. They must straighten up their acts before they graduate. If not, they don't get the final benefit Ñ that is, getting their records (for this offense) sealed."
Diane Crowe, chief deputy of Nevada's Public Defender's Office, said the program is widely accepted at the national level, where the success rate hovers around 70 percent.
With few exceptions, drug possession in Nevada is a felony and involves an appearance before justice court and a preliminary hearing, usually in 15 days, to determine probable cause. The case then goes to district court for arraignment and trial.
By pleading guilty early in the process, mid- to high-risk offenders are diverted to District Court, then Drug Court, shortening the process by five or six weeks.
Aimed at the kind of drug addiction that puts thousands into Nevada's prison system annually, the measure should free up the clogged court and prison systems as well as help offenders address their problems.
"In my personal experience, and that would be since 1980, there aren't enough treatment programs around," said Storey County Public Defender Sharon Claassen. "If someone is shooting methamphetamines and we put them in a program, they are treated until they sober up. They're on their own for followup counseling and don't have a lot of success. A thief has a better chance of completing probation than a drug user, because drugs are such a heavy duty addiction.
"We're hoping to short-circuit the process and get these people into counseling very quickly," Claassen said. "This measure is designed to aid those drug offenders, most involved with methamphetamines. The goal is to keep them out of prison. If they fail, they must come back to court for sentencing."
The program is selective. Offenders with a history of violent crime or sex offenses will be refused. Those that are accepted start with counseling three times a week. They are required to appear in court every two weeks and are tested for drugs regularly.
Participants must go to counseling three times a week and pay $50 a week for the privilege. They must participate for at least a year and program requirements are tailored to individual needs.
"They can be required to attend a wide range of classes, including parenting classes. Whatever they need to get lives in order," Crowe said. "The program is keeping people out of prison, working and off drugs. It's getting families back together."
The federal government provided court team training for local judges and officials. Locally five counties, including the First, Ninth and Third judicial districts pooled their resources to create the program, which is funded by the state Legislature and participants, according to Blake.
He said the program owes its existence to the cooperation of a number of district judges including Carson City District Court Judge William Maddox and Judge Michael Griffin, Judge Archie Blake from Lyon County District Court and Judge David Huff from Churchill County District Court.