Drug treatment court gets new name, judge

March 1, 2013
Curt Thompson

After nearly a year in limbo, Washington County’s drug treatment court has a fresh identity and a new judge at the helm.

On Monday, President Judge Debbie O’Dell Seneca signed an administrative order declaring that treatment court will now be called the Washington County Restrictive Treatment Program. The name reflects the program’s shift from a national to a state model more in line with the current Restrictive Intermediate Punishment program.

“The defendants that are in this specialty court are already under very intensive supervision by the adult probation office, so it will dovetail into the RIP funding and be treated as part of our intensive programing,” she said in an interview.

Additionally, District Judge Curtis Thompson has been tapped to preside over the program’s routine matters at least twice a month starting March 13.

While it may be unconventional for a magistrate to preside over a countywide specialty court, O’Dell Seneca said it was necessary to think outside of the box given the courthouse’s two empty judicial seats. She said Court of Common Pleas judges will still handle the program’s probation revocations and graduation ceremonies.

Judge Paul Pozonsky had presided over the program since its founding in 2005, until O’Dell Seneca stripped him of his criminal trial list in May and halted the admission of new candidates into the treatment. The following month, he suddenly retired after 15 years on the bench amid reports he was the subject of a state investigation.

After Pozonsky’s departure, drug treatment court remained afloat thanks to dedicated probation, mental health and drug and alcohol professionals, said O’Dell Seneca. After two graduations before the president judge and recently retired Judge Janet Moschetta Bell, the program is down to a dozen participants. However, the new changes are slated to bolster its enrollment.

O’Dell Seneca said 10 more candidates will be added into the program immediately. Once the newcomers are assimilated, she plans to add another 10 to bring the head count up to the program’s original capacity of about 30 people. If the RIP grant is approved by the state, the president judge said she hopes to double that amount to 60 participants starting July 1 and add a second case manager.

“It was never my intention to do away with treatment court,” O’Dell Seneca said. “It was to analyze it, to see where the strengths and weaknesses were.”

Funding from the state was apparently one of the latter traits – an issue the alignment with the RIP program may remedy. For two years, treatment court was funded through a private grant from the Staunton Farm Foundation of Pittsburgh, which ended in December 2011. O’Dell Seneca said the program has yet to use any money from the county and she doesn’t plan to ask for it now.

Washington County Assistant Chief Probation Officer Jon Ridge said the program is aimed at treating defendants who commit criminal acts because of their addiction, not criminals who happens to be addicts. Good candidates are those who do not have violent tendencies and have not been convicted of a major drug dealing or firearms offenses, he said.

Ridge said his officers work with case managers from Washington Drug & Alcohol Commission and other organizations who determine what kind of treatment is appropriate for each candidate.

“We’re like the hammer to that nail,” he said, explaining that his office is there to provide structure and surveillance, not act as therapists.

Ridge pointed out that not only is the treatment program are cheaper than putting someone behind bars, it may keep its participants from reentering the system. He said the idea that an addict will simply dry out in jail doesn’t work.

“If you incarcerate somebody and there’s no treatment offered, once they leave the doors, which 99.9 percent are leaving, how are you solving the problem?” he asked. “How are you training these individuals essentially to live sober and become productive members of society?”

According to a federal Bureau of Justice Statistics report released in November, nearly 7 million people – or one in 34 – are incarcerated or under some form of correction supervision in the U.S. in 2011. A report released by the bureau the following month indicates the mean expenditures per inmate at state and private prisons are more than $28,000 per year in 2010.

Andy McNeil has been with the Observer-Reporter since 2011 as a general assignment reporter. He covers courts and education, and also serves as a photographer and videographer. He graduated from Pennsylvania State University, The Behrend College, with a degree in English; Duquense University with a post-baccalaureate paralegal certificate, and Point Park University with a graduate degree in journalism and mass communication.

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