March 25, 2009

Law school to host expert on alternative courts

by Pete Rosenbery

CARBONDALE, Ill. -- A national leader in establishing specialized drug and mental health courts as alternatives to traditional criminal courts will visit the Southern Illinois University School of Law next week.

Judge Brent J. Moss, who presides over the Seventh Judicial District of Idaho, will present a lecture, “Problem Solving Courts?” at 5 p.m., Monday, March 30, in the Hiram H. Lesar Law Building courtroom. Admission is free, and the public is encouraged to attend.

Moss will retire from the bench after 24 years later this month. He is considered a “significant player” in the creation of drug and mental health courts that focus on addressing those behaviors outside the normal court setting, said Marshall A. Kapp, the Garwin Distinguished Professor of Law and Medicine, and co-director of the law school’s Center for Health Law and Policy.

“It’s the idea of using courts not to just punish people but as a therapeutic institution to help people get better; the courts have a role in helping people get better,” Kapp said.

Moss will discuss the specialized courts, their origin, effectiveness and future. He will also meet informally with students and may participate in class presentations while on campus. His son, Jacob, is a second-year student in the law school’s MD/JD program.

Media Availability

Reporters and photographers are welcome to cover the lecture. Moss will be available to speak with the media prior to, and after the lecture. To make arrangements for interviews or for more information on the lecture, contact Alicia Ruiz, the law school’s director of communications and outreach, at 618/453-8700.

“It’s a new way of trying to deal with some of the issues for those suffering mental illness and substance abuse. The traditional court system has not been particularly adept at addressing their problems or the problems that society has with respect to their behavior,” said W. Eugene Basanta, the Southern Illinois Healthcare Professor of Law and Medicine and co-director of the health law and policy center.

In an interview earlier this year with the Rexburg, Idaho, Standard Journal, Moss expressed his satisfaction with the continuing development of what he called “problem solving courts,” and said that they make a difference.

“To see people being treated instead of just warehoused is definitely a valuable trend,” Moss said. “Everybody has partnered together to try to reach out and treat people who have mental health or substance abuse issues and who are involved in our system instead of just incarcerating them.”

Moss earned his law degree from the University of Utah School of Law. Appointed a magistrate judge in 1985, he moved to the district bench in 1993. He received the Robert Wood Johnson Community Health Leadership Award for 2006. Idaho’s Seventh Judicial District covers 10 counties.

The lecture is of interest to area judges, private attorneys, prosecutors, public defenders, the law enforcement community, and clinicians involved with substance abuse issues.

Drug and mental health courts are an effective alternative to incarceration, said Shane Koch, associate professor and director of additions studies with SIUC’s Rehabilitation Institute. In Illinois, there has been almost no utilization of federally funded drug or substance abuse court models south of Interstate 70, other than in the Metro East area, he said.

Koch is pleased that Jones is coming to SIUC.

“One of the things I think is exciting about this is I have been very disappointed that Southern Illinois has not expressed more serious interest in pursuing specialized courts,” he said. “In a region like Southern Illinois, where we do not have a lot of economic resources to waste, I feel it would be in our best interest and the best interest of our communities and the people of Southern Illinois to really use specialized courts to not only save money but strengthen our communities.”

According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, there is $11.55 million in grants available for adult drug courts through the agency’s Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. A 2007 National Survey on Drug Use and Health shows 22.3 million people need treatment for an alcohol or illicit drug problem, but only 10 percent of those individuals received treatment at a specialty facility in the last year -- the same percentage of people in the criminal justice system who received treatment as part of their supervision, according to the agency.

“There is lots of solid data out there that drug courts are effective,” said Koch, whose research includes evaluations of two adult courts, a mental health court, an adolescent court and a DUI court.

His findings show an extraordinary monetary savings in terms of deferred incarceration costs. The average annual incarceration cost is $29,000 per prisoner, with recidivism rates that can be as high as 80 percent over time. Jails and penitentiaries are not prepared to deliver the kinds of treatment and rehabilitation services that can help people change their lives.

“The money you put into treatment is going to come back just in terms of what we would have spent putting offenders back into prison given the current recidivism rate,” he said. “My belief is treatment is always much more of an economically viable alternative than incarceration.”

Most drug courts deal with non-violent offenders who commit crimes related to their alcohol and drug use. The crimes are largely property crimes, Koch said.

Cultural attitudes, beliefs and values surrounding alcohol abuse and treatment lean toward a “moral model,” which ties the bad choices people make to punishment, Koch said. Punishment, however, does not work in changing drug and alcohol abuse behavior.

Drug courts emphasize people becoming independent, productive citizens who return to work and not prison, and clients receive intense services that can be life changing, he said. These courts closely monitor a client’s treatment plan and progress. In some instances, missing a treatment session can mean a weekend in jail.

“It really helps people stay on track. We know if we keep them in treatment they are going to make improvements, particularly when you … bring all kinds of different services into play to improve people’s lives,” he said.

Colleen C. Flanagan, the area administrator for TASC -- Treatment Alternatives for Safe Communities -- in Murphysboro, said drug courts help create a natural collaboration between the judicial system, clients and treatment providers. She has seen some judges who come down from the bench, sit with defendants, and take the time to know their personal stories, enabling those clients to see the judge supporting them in efforts to get better.

“The court’s role is not only creating sanctions, but also being supportive of individuals in their community,” she said. Drug courts also provide a vehicle for safe communities due to the intense monitoring clients receive in these programs.

TASC has several mental health drug courts in the Chicago and Rockford areas, said Flanagan, who plans to attend Moss’ lecture.

“Especially now with grants being available, I believe this creates a wonderful alternative for communities dealing with crimes that are related to drug and alcohol abuse,” she said.