Florida Keys News - Key West Citizen
Sunday, June 16, 2013
Key West's Drug Court gets a new home
It's an alternative to incarceration for nonviolent offenders

Ron Frink took a break Thursday from running the state-of-the-art drug testing and urinalysis machine in the new Monroe County Drug Court.

"We're averaging somewhere around 65 specimens a day," Frink said. "That includes Key West, Marathon and Tavernier courthouses. I'd say that's a good number for a county this size."

Frink is part of the team that makes up the drug court, now in its 20th year in the Florida Keys. The specialized court is broken into three categories: Adult, juvenile and family treatment court, and there are offices in courthouses in Key West, Marathon and Plantation Key.

The headquarters is now in the recently remodeled parking lot in the rear of the Freeman Justice Center in Key West at Thomas and Fleming streets where Frink works alongside a slew of counselors.

"Frankly, we would rather you came in here for a pre-employment drop rather than via the court system," Frink said, referring to a urine sample.

There were no arguments from Circuit Judge Mark Jones, trial court administrator Holly Elomina and Drug Court Manager JoAnn Brancel Thursday, all of whom gave The Citizen a tour of the recently opened offices.

The offices formerly were housed in the old courthouse at the corner of Fleming and Whitehead streets that is now mostly county offices.

Right now there are 81 people in the drug court program and that includes juveniles, adults and families.

At the helm of the team of counselors, attorneys, court workers and others, is Jones, who has been the presiding judge in the program for 16 years.

The goal is to keep nonviolent offenders out of prison by offering them a chance to get treatment -- but the threat of jail looms over those who blow off the program.

Frink's statement about keeping people out of the criminal justice system hits home when one considers the financial aspects of housing drug offenders as opposed to treating them. Consider: The average cost to treat an offender ranges from $2,500 to $4,000, with participants ordered to pay for a substantial amount of that expense, according to the Florida Supreme Court Task Force on Treatment-based Drug Courts.

By comparison, the average annual cost of a prison bed is $21,301, according to the state Department of Corrections.

Put another way, Drug Court saves the state an average of $3,000 to $12,000 per client, and for every $1 spent on Drug Court anywhere from $1.74 to $6.32 in other court costs is saved, according to the Office of the State Courts Administrator office.

Much of the funding for Drug Court comes from federal grants, local funding and from the offenders themselves.

"It really is a comprehensive approach and when I mean comprehensive," Jones said. "We have our in-house lab, many of our employees and counselors all here. That includes the testing and treatment components as well as all the outside organizations that are part of Drug Court -- the jail programs, AA and NA and other community programs."

The cost of the new Drug Court was $600,000 and that funding came from the 16th Judicial Circuit, not from Monroe County's general fund, said Monroe County Project Management Director Jerry Barnett.

D.L. Porter Constructors Inc., based in Sarasota with offices in Key West was the primary contractor.

"It's given us a level of respectability and a professional place in the new courthouse," said counselor Pat Gaureu. "It's more accessible to clients and they've all been commenting on how nice it is."

Construction on a new lobby and entrance for the Freeman Justice Center will likely begin at the end of this month or early July, Barnett said.

That project aims to provide more room in the lobby so those waiting to go through security are out of the elements.

alinhardt@keynews.com

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