Drug court concept mulled

HOUGHTON – Houghton County may soon incorporate a new approach to combating substance abuse.

97th District Court Judge Mark Wisti gave a presentation on drug courts at the Copper Country League of Women Voters annual meeting Saturday in Hancock.

Instead of going through the traditional criminal justice system, drug courts offer nonviolent substance abuse offenders the choice of undergoing drug treatment or going through the usual system.

Whereas alcoholism has been treated as a public health problem since 1980, Wisti said, over the same period, the number of drug imprisonments has swelled to no discernible effect.

Wisti offered two hypothetical cases.

Mickey the Mope, a 27-year-old high-school dropout, had two offenses of breaking into homes to steal pills. For his third offense – a popular urban legend among judges – Mickey breaks into a home and steals what he believes to be oxycontin. He sees the resident, a 67-year-old woman, and tries to run out, accidentally knocking her to the floor. The pills turn out to be Viagra; after Mickey goes to the emergency room after more than four hours, police arrest him at the hospital.

Mickey the Magnificent, a 47-year-old business owner worth $20 million, has racked up three drunk-driving convictions in his life. In the most recent case, he scraped a parked car and blew a .17.

Mickey the Mope is charged with felony distribution of narcotics and first-degree home invasion, and faces 30 years in prison. He reaches a plea deal, but still faces 30 to 120 months under state guidelines.

Mickey the Magnificent pleads guilty to operating under the influence, a 93-day misdemeanor, with a sentence bargain saying that he receives no jail time up front if he successfully completes a treatment program.

“We have one person who is in a category of people who have killed – 255 people in the state of Michigan last year,” Wisti said. “And we’ve got another person who is basically harmless to everyone but himself. And he goes to the state pen, for two-and-a-half, to 10 to 20 (years). This is ridiculous.”

Wisti estimated the district court does about 80 percent of the function of a drug court already. What the designation will do is allow it to perform daily tests, provide for a cop to make unannounced house calls on the people, and bring them back in front of Wisti every two weeks to check on them.

Wisti said he would not give any more plea bargains on drunk-driving cases, with the exception of reducing some non-lethal felony cases to get people into the drug court.

“If they plead to a felony, unless they’ve killed someone, they’re looking at a year,” he said. “So if it’s a felony, they can plead to a second impaired, they can come into my court. It doesn’t really make any difference, and we’re more geared up to treat them than circuit court is anyway. There may be certain circumstances where we don’t go along with that.”

As it is now, there’s not much money for drug tests in the county, Wisti said. Upon becoming judge in 2009, Wisti tried to enforce daily tests on drug offenders. After a week, he got a call from the sheriff’s department telling him he was using up all of their available drug tests.

“This is one thing we’re going to be able to do, is literally something as simple as drug tests we hope we’re going to be able to afford,” he said.

Wisti said there would be a carrot-and-stick approach. The first time offenders screw up, they’ll go to jail for the weekend, the second time, a week, and so on.

But people who perform well may get perks, such as free workboots or movie tickets.

“They aren’t going to mean a (darn) thing to Mickey the Magnificent, but to Mickey the Mope that might be a (heck) of a big deal for him,” Wisti said. “He’s got no self-esteem, and he just had the judge tell him he’s doing a good job, he’s getting a card.”

While sobriety courts have reduced recidivism by half, opiate courts have had less effect, Wisti said. He said he suspects it’s the lack of resources for most drug users compared to drinkers, many of whom may be high-functioning.

The formal steps of establishing the court are simple. Wisti needs to sign an administrative order, get a memorandum of agreement with the prosecutor’s office, then have it approved by the State Court Administrator’s Office.

The hard part, though, will be creating a sustainable program. Wisti said the court is applying for three grants that would provide funding for the drug court for three years. Many communities are forming non-profit groups for more permanent funding sources. However, Wisti said, it’s unclear if that violates the legal prohibition against judges fundraising.

“Ultimately, we have to become self-funding,” he said.