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Monday, July 14, 2014

New drug court in Nashua gets its first participant; focus on supervision, treatment not incarceration

NASHUA – The first participant in the Hillsborough County Superior Court’s drug court program began his journey this week by pleading guilty to drug possession but not going to prison.

Douglas Roberge pleaded guilty to possession of a narcotic drug Monday and received a pair of suspended prison sentences. In return he agreed to abide by the strict guidelines of the newly established court, including intensive treatment, weekly meetings with a judge and treatment team and frequent drug testing. ...

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NASHUA – The first participant in the Hillsborough County Superior Court’s drug court program began his journey this week by pleading guilty to drug possession but not going to prison.

Douglas Roberge pleaded guilty to possession of a narcotic drug Monday and received a pair of suspended prison sentences. In return he agreed to abide by the strict guidelines of the newly established court, including intensive treatment, weekly meetings with a judge and treatment team and frequent drug testing.

“These are the eight or nine people who have your best interest at heart now,” Judge Jacalyn Colburn told Roberge referring to the drug court team. “We believe in you and we’re going to work with you.”

Colburn has identified five criminal defendants she believed would benefit from the drug court program. The drug court team – including police, prosecutors and defense attorneys, treatment providers and a probation officer – then screened each person, three of whom have been approved for the program so far.

The idea is supervision, treatment and getting clean.

“The heroin epidemic in this city is out of control – out of control,” Colburn said. “This drug epidemic is a problem that we cannot arrest and incarcerate our way out of. We just can’t. It’s just a fact. We need to do something that turns the tide.”

Drug courts target offenders who have no other access to treatment programs, but they don’t accept violent criminals or casual users.

Instead of going to jail, a drug court defendant would be subjected to a court-ordered regimen of treatment, weekly one-on-one and group therapy sessions, frequent and random drug tests, work or school requirements and weekly meetings with a judge, said Superior Court Chief Justice Tina Nadeau, a strong proponent of the courts.

Colburn said she has been meeting with another defendant, Amelia Roy, for more than a year in what amounted to a one-person drug court.

Roy was about to go to prison for drug possession until Colburn intervened, began meeting with her weekly and demanding she attend treatment sessions.

Now she is taking college courses and studying to become an EMT. She spoke to Roberge and two other potential drug court enrollees on Monday.

“To me, I feel like this is winning the lottery. It’s such an opportunity,” Roy said. “Think of how many heroin addicts are sitting in jail right now who would kill for this opportunity. You guys have all these people behind you and it’s awesome. I really hope you feel extremely grateful for this opportunity because it’s huge.”

Officials are still waiting to hear whether the program will receive a three-year, $700,000 U.S. Department of Justice grant that would allow them to accept up to 80 participants in Nashua and Manchester. In Nashua, the court’s treatment provider, Greater Nashua Mental Health Center, agreed to provide treatment services for a small number of defendants this month since a decision about the federal grant isn’t expected until the fall.

Three drug courts are already open in Rockingham, Grafton and Strafford counties.

Colburn said once the courts are fully funded, she expects she will spend half a day a week working with drug court clients.

In the 25 years since the country’s first drug court opened in Miami, Fla., research has shown that the courts are vastly better at reducing recidivism than traditional criminal courts and incarceration, according to the National Association of Drug Court Professionals.

Hillsborough County officials have been working toward opening the twin drug courts for more than a year. A large part of the delay was due to sequestration that froze the federal grant money that would fund the courts. Most of the grant money would pay for treatment.

Joseph G. Cote can be reached at 594-6415 or jcote@nashua
telegraph.com. Also, follow Cote on Twitter (@Telegraph_JoeC).