N.H.’s drug courts move to remote treatment, group meetings during coronavirus outbreak

  • A Merrimack County Superior Court daily calendar inside the Merrimack County Courthouse in Concord in this March 2016 file photo. Monitor file photo

Monitor staff
Published: 4/5/2020 3:29:56 PM

For the hundreds of substance-dependent offenders participating in New Hampshire’s drug courts, the coronavirus pandemic has required a new, more remote approach to treatment and counseling services and greater all-around flexibility in daily routines.

Although courthouses throughout the state have suspended most in-person hearings and greatly limited foot traffic, the alternative sentencing program is still up and running with critical services available to those working toward long-term recovery. However, like most schools in the state and elsewhere in the country, the program is relying more and more on technology to keep participants, case managers, attorneys, judges and other members of the team connected during a time of social distancing.

“The setup still looks the same, but instead of them physically going to the courthouse for weekly meetings or into a building for drug and alcohol sessions, they’re all just logging on through their own devices, whether a cellphone or tablet,” Drug Court Coordinator Alex Casale said in a recent interview.

One positive that has emerged from this remote platform: Barriers to transportation are nonexistent.

“For people living in more rural areas, some of our programs had already started doing more of a telehealth model even before this pandemic started,” Casale said, referring to a distribution of health-related services for participants through mobile devices and computers.

Because a cellphone is considered somewhat of a necessity nowadays, Casale said participants were largely ready to make the quick transition from in-person to online.

The first drug court in the state was piloted in 2004 in Strafford County but the model had been around in the U.S. for decades. The program provides qualifying participants with structured, community-based and judicially supervised treatment with the goal of reducing crime, lowering recidivism rates and ultimately saving taxpayers money. Presently, roughly 60 people are enrolled in the program in Merrimack County.

While the coronavirus pandemic has created some new hurdles for the program, Casale said he wants participants to know that drug court isn’t going anywhere.

“Everyone is really coming together because of this crisis and it has been amazing to watch,” he said.

One of the biggest challenges for the program is in-person drug testing. During a given time slot, 12 to 15 people may be required to appear for a test as part of their therapy, Casale said. In one of a series of executive orders on the coronavirus, Gov. Chris Sununu prohibited gatherings of 10 or more people, which forced the drug courts to pursue options for staggered testing. However, certain locations have cut back on their hours as a result of the pandemic, making scheduling a bit of an obstacle at times.

Some programs are looking into options for a sweat patch drug test, which is worn for seven days and tests for common types of drugs, Casale said. The absorbent pads soak up perspiration and any drugs in the person’s sweat.

“One program had a set of patches prior to this all happening so they’re using theirs,” Casale said. “Others are wondering if we should start moving in that direction. We can survive for the next couple of weeks by shifting drug testing around, but much longer than that will require a real change in approach.”

For participants who test positive for drug use, fail to check in or don’t appear for treatment, the drug court team will hand down a variety of sanctions. Jail remains a possibility for the most serious of violations, although Casale said the team is being more cautious about introducing too many people into the system for short stints due to concerns about a coronavirus spread. So far, prisons and jails in the state have reported clean bills of health.

“We would normally use a lot of community service but a lot of those agencies are temporarily shutting down because they’re not considered essential services, and it would require a lot of people to congregate,” he said.

What that means for participants is additional check ins with staff and written assignments.




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