HD66 - First-Time Drug Offender Statute/§ 18.2-251

Executive Summary:
The Crime Commission staff focused first on the feasibility of expanding § 18.2-251 to include other first time drug offenses beyond possession. As a part of that effort, staff developed a survey instrument to be sent of circuit court and general district judges, commonwealth attorneys, public defenders and a random sample of criminal defense attorneys (Appendix). The responses on the survey did not indicate significant support for expansion of the first offender statute.

* Amendments to § 18.2-251/Substance Assessment and Treatment

The Task Force on Substance Abuse Services for Offenders, an interagency group composed of representatives from the Department of Corrections, the Department of Mental Health, Mental Retardation & Substance Abuse Services, and local community services boards, worked with the Commission staff to identify changes to § 18.2-251 which would strengthen treatment services for substance abuses who commit drug offenses. As a result of this work, staff recommended that the Code be amended to require a substance abuse assessment for offenders charged under § 18.2-251 and to require treatment for the offender, if indicated. The amendment would also require offender reimbursement based upon his ability to pay.

* Amendments to § 18.2-258.1/Reduction of Charge on First Offense for Prescription Fraud

During the discussion regarding changes to the first offender statute the Corrections Subcommittee agreed to amendments to § 18.2-258.1 (prescription fraud) which would reduce the first offense to a Class I misdemeanor. Members of the Subcommittee pointed out that many individuals guilty of prescription fraud or forgery are committing the offense to support an addiction which began with a legally prescribed drug. Demographic profiles of these offenders indicate that they are more often employed, educated, have stable families than many of the other types of drug offenders.

* Amendments to § 53.1-20-B1/Local vs. State Responsible Offenders

As a part of the survey sent to judges, commonwealth attorneys, and public defenders, a question was included regarding the definition of a state versus local responsible offender. Currently the Code defines a state responsible offender as one who has an active sentence of over six months. The survey results indicate support for changing this to an active sentence of over one year. The Corrections Subcommittee adopted this proposal. The Sheriffs' Association is on record in support of this amendment

* Two Drug Court Pilots/Richmond and Charlottesville

As a corollary of this study effort, the staff examined other issues which relate to drug offending and drug abuse. Among these were: the feasibility of expanding the drug court model to several jurisdictions, amendments to § 18.2-251 relating to substance abuse assessment and treatment, offender reimbursement for substance abuse treatment, and the threshold for who is designated state and local responsible offenders. The staff met with judges, commonwealth attorneys, probation and parole staff, and staff of the community services boards of Richmond and Charlottesville to discuss the implementation of a drug court model in these two jurisdictions. Both localities expressed support for such a project. Working with staff from House Appropriations, a drug court budget proposal was developed as a recommendation of the study (Appendix F & G). The Corrections Subcommittee adopted the proposal.

* Crime Commission Study on Substance Abuse Treatment Funding Models

Substance abuse treatment for offenders is in great demand but resources are very limited. Community corrections for both state and local responsible offenders have scarce treatment dollars to serve significant numbers of offenders in the community. The Department of Mental Health, Mental Retardation & Substance Abuse Services is the state agency charged by statute with providing substance abuse services in the Commonwealth (§ 37.1-204). The local community services boards provide substance abuse treatment services to offenders; however, the level of support for this population from fees and other funding sources cannot be determined.

The Corrections Subcommittee recommended that the Crime Commission conduct a study in 1997, in collaboration with House Appropriations, Senate Finance, Department of Mental Health, Mental Retardation & Substance Abuse Services, Department of Criminal Justice Services, Department of Corrections and the Virginia Alcohol and Safety Program, to examine the funding issue for substance abuse treatment services for offenders and to make recommendations to the 1998 General Assembly.

The criminal justice system can take substance abusers off the streets, but it cannot keep them off the streets. If we are to stop the revolving door of incarceration and release and incarceration once again, the system must serve to break the cycle of substance abuse, not merely interrupt it. Sanctions must respond to the underlying addiction driving the criminal behavior. The recommendations of the HJR 6 study of the first time drug offender statute provide a comprehensive approach within the criminal justice system to addressing the intrinsic causes of the many criminal drug offenses clogging our court dockets today.