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Judge candidates spar over effectiveness of drug court

Jackson County Circuit Court Judge Patricia Crain and Jackson County Deputy District Attorney David Orr have widely different views on the effectiveness of drug-treatment court programs.

Crain, who is known for her work in drug-court programs, is being challenged in the May election by Orr for Jackson County Circuit Court Judge Position 4.

Crain contends drug-court programs are a cost-effective alternative to prison that help people break the cycle of crime that often accompanies addiction. She said she wishes more resources were available so more people could benefit from drug-court services.

"I really love this work. It's inspiring and amazing," she said.

Orr contends too many people are being allowed to enter drug-court programs.

"Only a certain fraction of people really want treatment," he said. "I want a drug court that is really focused on reform and the people who want treatment — and not just a get-out-of-jail-free card."

If Orr unseats Crain, both agreed Orr would not necessarily step into Crain's role as one of the Circuit Court judges who handles drug-court cases. Instead, the duties of Circuit Court judges could be shuffled.

Orr said if he were handed drug-treatment court responsibilities, he would take those on.

Crain said there has been a national movement toward drug-treatment court programs.

"Neither probation nor prison was working," she said, adding that 70 to 80 percent of crimes are drug- and alcohol-related. "It shows you the reach of substance abuse."

Beginning in 2000, Jackson County began establishing drug-treatment court programs, starting first with family cases in which addicted parents had lost custody of their children or were in danger of losing custody. Programs later were expanded to adult criminal cases, targeting repeat property-crime offenders with substance-abuse problems.

Among other conditions, defendants meet with the same judge regularly, undergo drug testing, attend drug treatment, write a letter of apology to victims, complete a community service project and must have a job or be working on their educations before they graduate from the program.

"The apology letter to victims can be very powerful," Crain said. "You have to read it out loud. The victim is invited to listen. Once you're not high on drugs, you can see the wreckage you caused."

Crain said drug-treatment court is not appropriate for everyone, and not everyone graduates from the rigorous program.

"People who commit violent crimes need to be taken off the streets. Some repeat property offenders do, too," she said.

But with a whole team of professionals, including judges, police officers and drug-treatment providers, devoted to defendants' cases, Crain said the programs are more effective than regular probation, which has fewer requirements, or prison.

"It's like turbo probation," she said.

Orr said although drug-treatment court is not supposed to be for violent offenders, defendants sometimes do have violent criminal histories — and some go on to commit violent crimes while going through drug-treatment court programs or after having graduated.

He pointed to the example of a man with a long criminal history who attended drug-treatment court but now has a pending manslaughter case against him.

"I'm not a lock-'em-up, throw-away-the-key kind of guy, but there's a point at which public safety says we need them in prison," said Orr, who has worked as both a public defender and in his current role as a prosecutor.

Although Jackson County has had drug-treatment court programs in place for years, Orr said property crime continues to increase.

"It's had no effect whatsoever," Orr said.

Crain said rising property crime is a sign of the epidemic of drug abuse sweeping the nation. People are taking addictive opioid prescription medications, then moving on to illegal street drugs such as heroin.

"A wave of substance abuse is engulfing us. It's moving out to the wider community," she said.

But Crain said study after study has shown drug-treatment court graduates have lower recidivism rates than people who go through standard probation or prison. More are able to break free of addiction and turn their lives around.

"We have a guy going to law school. We have a guy going to medical school. We have several people getting their master's degrees. We have people who have mill jobs who are supporting their families, and their kids are staying in school. We have a woman who became a drug and alcohol counselor," she said.

While Orr is not raising the issue in his campaign, some members of the community have questioned whether Crain is in a relationship with Rita Sullivan, executive director of OnTrack, which provides drug-treatment services for drug court defendants. Some question whether a relationship could constitute a conflict of interest.

Crain said she and Sullivan are friends but not in a relationship.

Crain said drug-court judges do work closely with community partners such as OnTrack that are part of the overall team.

"Because people see us together, a lot of people have drawn their own conclusions," she said.

Crain said Sullivan works very hard writing grant proposals that have allowed an expansion of drug-treatment programs in the community. Working with a single drug-treatment provider for drug court creates consistency, Crain said.

Orr said drug-treatment services for drug court may be too concentrated.

"OnTrack's contract with the court is a gold mine," he said.

Crain said Jackson County Circuit Court judges have nothing to do with deciding who receives contracts and who is awarded grants. She said those decisions are made at the state level.

In his campaign, Orr, 52, has questioned whether Crain, 69, intends to serve out her full six-year term if re-elected. If she doesn't, Oregon's governor would appoint her replacement — cutting Jackson County voters out of the decision.

"There's zero accountability to the public," Orr said, adding that far too many judges in Oregon reach the office via appointment and then benefit from the power of incumbency to win subsequent elections.

Crain said she has every intention of serving the full term if re-elected and remains enthusiastic about her job.

"I would not be running if I didn't intend to complete my term," she said.

Staff reporter Vickie Aldous can be reached at 541-776-4486 or valdous@mailtribune.com. Follow her at www.twitter.com/VickieAldous.

Patricia Crain
David Orr