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Physician suggests local drug court

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Dr. Joseph Rupard suggested to Bedford County Board of Commissioners' law enforcement committee on Tuesday that the county consider starting a drug court, a judicial initiative that diverts some drug-related offenders from jail or prison into a court-supervised rehab program.

The committee wanted more specifics and has asked Rupard to arrange for a speaker from a location like Williamson County which already operates a drug court.

Rupard, the Bedford County Jail physician for 16 years, found out about the drug court program by accident. A patient in his private practice needed a drug used to treat addiction, and Rupard discovered he needed a special Drug Enforcement Agency certification to prescribe it. In the process of researching that, he consulted with someone active in the Nashville drug court.

Rupard said many are sent to Bedford County Jail for offenses stemming from their own drug addictions. Although they may dry out while in jail, their underlying addiction hasn't been treated, and when they leave jail they return to their old habits. A drug court is meant to address the root cause by diverting some inmates to a court-supervised outpatient rehab program, using a drug like the one Rupard wanted to prescribe for his patient. Like an inmate on probation, the drug court inmate must check in regularly to ensure that he or she is making progress in the rehab program.

Rupard said the rehab program can be much less expensive than the cost of keeping that same inmate behind bars. He said incarceration can cost $40,000 to $50,000 per inmate per year, while a drug court can cost between $10,000 and $15,000 per participant per year.

But Rupard said it would be important to select only those inmates who are likely to benefit from the program.

"It's not for everybody," he said.

Gayle Moyer Harris, an attorney who coordinates the drug court for the 21st Judicial District in Franklin, wrote in a letter to Rupard that the Williamson County drug court is a two-year program. If an offender chosen for the program has been sentenced to longer than two years, they participate in drug court for the first two years and then are transferred to state probation for the remainder of the sentence.

Harris said that 37.5 percent of the program's 2006-2007 graduates were arrested again within two years, and 25 percent were convicted. That's better than the recidivism rates for jails and prisons in a 1994 study by the Tennessee Sentencing Commission. The state study, which can be found online, recorded that 53.5 percent of offenders released by Tennessee jails and prisons were rearrested or reincarcerated within two years.

Sheriff Randall Boyce, who was present at the committee meeting, said he would have no objection to such a program.

"I think it would be a good idea," said Boyce. But he said he's not sure whether local judges would support it.

Boyce said that in some cases, a drug court would make sense for first-time offenders who currently get probation instead of jail sentences. Putting them through rehab instead of probation might help prevent them from becoming repeat offenders, said Boyce.

Committee members peppered Rupard with questions, but Rupard said his research so far has been only preliminary. The committee asked Rupard to arrange for a speaker who could present more details about the program for county commissioners, law enforcement personnel and judges, so that the county could learn more about whether a drug court program could work here.

In other discussion at the law enforcement committee meeting, County Finance Director Robert Daniel said he has negotiated a 40 percent discount with Vanderbilt University Medical Center on some outstanding hospital bills for state felons -- but the county must go ahead and pay now. The bills will be filed with the state for reimbursement.

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