by Pia K. Hansen

Usually, the judge doesn't hug defendants in court, but judge Tari Eitzen's courtroom is a little different -- at least on Monday afternoons, when drug court is in session.

On this particular Monday afternoon, about 25 drug court clients line the benches at the Spokane County Courthouse. A name is read, and a young man in baggy jeans approaches the bench.

"I'm so proud of you," says Eitzen as she leans over to give him a hug. He looks a little embarrassed -- can one actually touch a judge? -- but he gets over it as he is handed his six-month award. His cheeks are still blushing as he heads for his seat, looking down. Two other young men are next -- one has passed the six-month mark, the other nine months. There's some applause. Then it's back to business.

One by one, the drug court offenders stand before Eitzen. A community corrections officer and a case manager, who both work for the court, take turns testifying that the defendant has showed up at all therapy sessions and otherwise complied with the court's demands.

To the few who haven't, justice is meted out swiftly and without much ado: Eight hours of community service here, 16 hours there and a few reminders that getting an "adequate" report from group therapy meetings isn't good enough.

"You are able to do a lot better than just adequate," says Eitzen to a big man who looks like he just stepped out of a mechanic's shop. As he stands there in his coveralls, with hands so black from this morning's work that he leaves a handprint on the chair, he looks totally out of place. But he listens. Eitzen adds that she realizes she may sound just like his parents. The man quietly answers: "Yeah, if I had had parents, that's probably the kind of thing they would have said to me."

Another offender has fallen so far behind on his meetings and community work that he gets to spend his weekends in jail until he's caught up.

A woman hasn't called her caseworker as she was supposed to. Now she's explaining that she was too sick to pick up the phone.

"You must call us," says Eitzen. "We don't know if you got hurt or you OD'ed or if something bad happened to you." And on and on it goes, as Eitzen and her staff work their way through the rows in the courtroom.

That Spokane has a meth problem is nothing new. Just this weekend, another meth lab was busted on the lower South Hill. While law enforcement is doing everything possible to keep up with the cooks, the users and the dealers, the court system is overloaded with meth-related cases. This winter, the prosecutor's office is looking at a backlog of more than 700 meth-related cases -- and the number is likely to grow. Why? Because meth offenders have a tendency to be repeat offenders, officials say, since the core of their criminal problem is their addiction. As long as they are hooked, they are likely to continue to violate the law. If arrested for possession, they serve perhaps a 30- or a 60-day sentence, then return to the same environment they came from -- including the same drug-addicted friends, the unemployment lines and their own addiction. Soon they are back in court again, and the cycle repeats.

"It's what we call the revolving-door syndrome; these people are addicted," says James R. Smith, the project director for Spokane County Adult Felony Drug Court since its inception in 1996. "The law as it is does nothing to alleviate drug use. Maybe there's some treatment available in jail, but let's be honest: people also use drugs every day in jail."

But in the middle of this chaos is a small branch of the court system that seems to be doing something right: drug court.

Here's the deal: If a person is arrested on a drug charge -- meth, heroin or any other drug -- and no other charges are filed, that person can apply for drug court. If accepted, the offender spends 12 months under the court's daily supervision. If the offender graduates, it'll be without a felony conviction on his or her rap sheet. Sex offenders need not apply, and the same goes for violent offenders -- they simply can't get into drug court.

For years, drug court was considered by some nothing more than a soft alternative to "real" court, but those familiar with the system say that's definitely not the case.

"This is harder than going to jail," says Smith. "You talk to a lot of offenders out there, and they'll tell you they'd rather serve a year in jail, standing on their heads, than going through drug court."

What's so hard about it is not only the strict supervision and control, but also the fact you've got to kick the drug habit you have -- whatever that may be. For one entire year, drug court participants must show up in court weekly, attend Narcotics Anonymous meetings as well as group drug-treatment sessions, and stay clean. (Everyone is subject to random urine tests.)

The Spokane drug court can manage about 50 people at a time. Once in the system, the participants relinquish all rights to a normal trial: if they flunk drug court, for instance by coming in with a "dirty" urine sample, or by violating other court guidelines, they'll be sentenced right away -- no ifs, ands or buts.

"If they flunk out, that will get them rapid-fire sentencing," says Smith. "These are people with an addiction problem, so we'll allow them to trip up maybe a time or two in the beginning. But it's a very rigid system; we will not tolerate repeated failure."

Mary M. Doran is the deputy prosecuting attorney who carries the cases for drug court. Currently, she's got about 35 clients. "I've been in drug court for five years, and I enjoy the fact that it's not adversarial," she says. "We all want the same thing, the judge, me, the case worker -- everyone. We want for this person to get through and graduate."

Doran says that what she likes the most about her job is that she doesn't see her clients come back over and over again.

"I enjoy to see people do well," she says. "I enjoy to see people here that I don't see in court again."

She says the court could easily double the number of offenders it serves, if only funding was available.

"There are many more clients than we can fit in the system," says Doran. "I'd say about half of the clients we get are related to meth. I don't necessarily know what they use, but I know what they are arrested with."

Of 1,045 Spokane (city and county) drug-related arrests in 2001, only 119 were eligible for drug court; of those, 40 opted in. That same year, Eitzen and her staff saw 13 of the 32 clients who opted in during 2000 graduate; 19 failed.

In 1996, when drug court opened in Spokane, only 564 drug-related arrests were made, and of those 46 opted into drug court.

Smith says that in the almost six years of drug court, a little more than 100 people have graduated.

"There's no question in my mind that this works," he says.

Eitzen echoes that: "It's cheaper than putting people in jail. Including treatment and everything, it costs about $4,500 a year to have a client in drug court. Incarceration runs somewhere between $25,000 and $50,000 a year."

Drug court is not just a Spokane success story. There are about 700 drug courts across the country. Actually, former Attorney General Janet Reno came up with the idea down in Florida in the late '80s, before she moved on to Washington, D.C. The American University Drug Court Clearinghouse reports that since the inception of drug courts in 1989, approximately 100,000 drug-using offenders have participated in the program. By 1997, the latest data available, a little more than 70 percent of those offenders had either graduated -- drug-free -- or were still participating in the program.

After spending an afternoon in drug court, one thing is clear: people here are on a mission. Seated in her office after the session is over, Eitzen simply radiates the determination she's trying to pass on to her clients. Currently she's working to secure more state funding for her court, and for treatment spots in the community.

"I have enough of everything else," she says. "I can find the prosecutor time, the court room time, everything, but I don't have enough money for more treatment slots."

She has applied for a $1.5 million federal grant to be spent over three years, but hasn't heard back yet. And the new Washington Sentencing Reform Act that may be passed soon would make some extra dollars available, too.

"We have to consider what we want to do with these people. Do we just want to throw them away because they have a chemical addiction?" Eitzen asks. "Do we want to spend money on treatment or just on jailing them? Drug court has a very high success rate. I just wish more people could get the chance."

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