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Specialty courts set to receive close to half of grant dollars requested for 2019-2021

PMG PHOTO: ANNA DEL SAVIO - Columbia County's specialty courts take place in the Columbia County Courthouse in St. Helens. The specialty courts aim to rehabilitate offenders more than a short jail sentence, but state funding for the programs has been cut. Columbia County's treatment court programs for drug dependency and behavioral health issues were awarded roughly half of the amount requested for the 2019-2021 biennium.

Columbia County Circuit Court has three specialty court programs: the Adult Drug Court, the Dependency Drug Court for families, and the Behavioral Health Court/Veteran Court.

In the last funding cycle, which was for 2017 to 2019, the Columbia County courts were awarded a total of $710,220, or 99% of the amount requested. For 2019 to 2021, they were awarded just 53% of the $706,468.00 requested.

Columbia County's Juvenile Treatment Court is separate from the adult court funding request.

Specialty courts across the state saw funding from the Oregon Criminal Justice Commission Specialty Court Grant Program drop, as more courts applying stretched the program's funds.

"Every single biennium our funding has grown from the state Legislature, and this biennium is no exception," Criminal Justice Commission Executive Director Michael Schmidt said.

He said that during this grant opening, the program received more applications totaling a higher amount than ever before.

The state's Criminal Justice Commission and the advisory committee established to review the applications prioritize evidence-based practices. In addition, the committee aimed to evenly spread per-participant funding in different areas.

In Columbia County, one of the most significant funding cuts will impact housing. Columbia County requested equivalent to $2,225 per participant per month for housing needs through Iron Tribe sober house, but the commission allocated closer to $300 per participant per month, according to Specialty Court Analyst Joanna Robert.

The funding cuts are also related to the county's low enrollment in the specialty courts. Enrollment fluctuates, but as of this week, Columbia County District Attorney Jeff Auxier said the dependency court has 12 participants, the Adult Drug Court has 17, the Behavioral Health Court has 15, and the Veterans Court has only 2 or 3.

The specialty court coordinator, Julianne Heuer, said Wednesday that she would appeal the grant award. Heuer previously explained that without full funding, the program will see significant cuts to housing services provided by Iron Tribe, peer mentoring programs, transportation and the family court daycare program, according to draft minutes from the county's Local Public Safety Coordinating Council.

Defendants can end up in the specialty courts when a circuit court judge agrees that the crimes committed were the result of drug addiction or mental health issues. The courts aim to provide resources and support to help the individual begin a path to recovery.

Specialty courts have become more common in the past decade, Auxier explained. Drug court "was a recognition that the standard tools that were used to deal with criminals didn't really apply effectively to people who were primarily just in the throes of drug addiction," Auxier said.

The Behavioral Health Court "is my pride and joy," said Columbia County Circuit Judge Cathleen Callahan.

"I applaud Columbia County for trying to think and be innovative. There's a lot of good thinking behind people doing prosocial things like exercise," Schmidt said, referring to funding the county's courts had requested for CrossFit classes for participants. "If we had all the funding we needed, we would love to fund that... We really had to focus on just funding things that have been researched."

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