HONESDALE – A bill that would have created a second Common Pleas judge in Wayne County stalled in the House, but the county is still moving forward in establishing a drug treatment court and a pre-trial diversion program.
Had the bill become law, a second judge slot would have been on the ballot for the 2017 election whose winner would have assisted in the drug court.
Still, officials are hoping the drug court and pre-trial diversion program will be in place by mid-next year.
“A pre-trial diversion program and a drug court in Wayne County will be effective in the fight we are in against heroin and opioid addiction,” District Attorney Janine Edwards said. “I will do what I can to keep our community safe, hold offenders accountable when they break the law and help those addicted. An alternate plan is needed here and we will see it through.”
Lawyer Steven Burlein, the county's chief public defender, agreed, saying he has seen a marked increase in recent years in defendants charged with crimes related to opioids such has heroin and pain pills.
While statistics were not available, Burlein said, “It seems every second defendant is related to (the opioid problem),” noting how abuse of the drug spawns other crimes, including theft, as users seek to support their drug habits.
Edwards and Burlein also agree that many drug offenders are not hardened criminals but people who need treatment and could respond to it with the proper programs.
President Judge Raymond Hamill would oversee the drug court, the DA said, and the pre-trial diversion program would work in conjunction with the drug court.
Drug courts combine intensive judicial supervision, mandatory drug testing, treatment and incentives to help offenders with substance-abuse problems break the cycle of addiction and crime.
Such a court is led by a judge and includes a prosecutor, defense counsel, treatment provider, probation officers, law enforcement and court coordinator who work to support and monitor a participant's recovery.
Currently, 35 of Pennsylvania's 67 counties have drug courts.
In the pretrial diversion program, nonviolent, first-time offenders would almost immediately be placed into treatment after an arrest. If they follow through with treatment and other responsibilities, the charges could be dismissed.
The drug court judge would oversee the progress of the offenders through the diversion program.
Statistics show that drug arrests and DUI incidents have taken up half the caseload in Wayne County Common Pleas criminal court, according to the Administrative Office of Pennsylvania Courts. In 2014, the last year for which statistics were available, there were 144 DUI cases (30 percent) and 78 drug arrests (nearly 17 percent).
While the number of DUI incidents decreased almost 6 percent between 2011 and '14, the number of drug cases jumped by more than 13 percent in the same time.