Louisville judge sends defendant to prison because drug court ‘about to be eliminated’

By Jason Riley

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LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) — A Jefferson Circuit Court judge on Wednesday sent a defendant to prison instead of allowing her to get treatment in a local drug court, at least in part, he said, because drug court will soon no longer “be an option” in Kentucky.

“It’s about to be eliminated,” Chief Jefferson Judge Charlie Cunningham said in a hearing. “We don’t really have the money for it, so I’m not going to put anybody in drug court knowing that in a couple months that it’s going to cease to exist.”

Cunningham’s ruling came on the heels of testimony this week from Kentucky Chief Justice John Minton, who told legislators that proposed cuts to the court system will likely eliminate 600 jobs and shutter drug courts across the state, among other losses.

“The whole future of Kentucky’s court system hangs in the balance, and I have to make that known,” Justice Minton told the Senate budget committee Monday.

The case of Tabatha Newman’s in Jefferson County Wednesday is perhaps the first real-life example of what is in store if the budget bill passes.

Newman was in court on a motion by prosecutors to revoke her probation on drug and theft convictions, because she had been arrested on additional drug charges and failed to meet with her probation officer.

“We acknowledge she has a drug problem,” said Liam Michener, a law student working for the Commonwealth’s Attorney’s office. Michener told Cunningham that Newman has not received treatment and would continue to commit crimes if the judge didn’t take action.

Defense attorney Ryan Dischinger, who represents Newman, told Cunningham that his client had been getting drug treatment in jail since she had been arrested on the new charges in January.

“Clearly she has substance abuse issues,” Dischinger said. “I can’t hide from that.”

But Dischinger recommended that, instead of sending Newman to prison for up to three years, the judge order her to drug court where treatment could “stop the cycle of addiction.”

If sent to prison, Dischinger said, Newman would likely be released on parole soon, without having her problems fully addressed.

In drug courts, defendants remain out of prison but get close supervision and treatment and must meet goals such as finding jobs, getting an education and staying clean. Most courts across the state have drug court.

Kentucky Appeals Court Judge Irv Maze told legislators this week that losing Jefferson County’s drug court would be one of the painful casualties.

“I used to run it as the county attorney,” he said. “It is the right thing to do. It keeps people out of prison and it restores lives.”

Gov. Matt Bevin has proposed 9 percent cuts to the courts in each of the next two fiscal years.

He told WDRB in a statement last month that “Kentucky has serious financial issues to deal with, and the solution will come as a result of budgetary sacrifice on the part of many.”

Minton said closing drug court would affect about 2,500 current participants, possibly resulting in the incarceration of many of these people.

He told legislators that closing drug court programs in Kentucky right now, in the midst of the state’s drug and heroin epidemic, would “send the wrong message about our willingness to address the human aspect of this escalating problem.”

In court Wednesday, Cunningham called the possible elimination of drug courts “stupid, because the alternative is I’m going to spend a whole lot more money putting (Newman) in prison. But that’s what the General Assembly is basically saying to us.”

In an interview Wednesday, Cunningham said he believes drug courts will be among the first cuts made, before employees are laid off.

“I take people at their work when they tell me this is what will happen,” he said.

Still, Cunningham said that there is still some hope drug court will be saved and if a good candidate comes before him, he would consider the treatment option rather than prison.

Both Cunningham and Assistant Commonwealth’s Attorney Elizabeth Jones Brown said Newman was not a good candidate for drug court, given how many times she was arrested or skipped meetings with her probation officer.

“But we’re concerned with the potential loss of drug court because it is appropriate in certain instances,” Jones Brown said.

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