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Tackling Crime by Trading Punishment for Treatment

Washoe County, Nevada, uses Thermo Fisher Scientific’s toxicology assays for frequent, random drug testing to empower people with addiction to reclaim their lives.

By Terri Somers 

Senior Global Public Relations Manager, StoryLab

Chris Chamberlain-Nonan, lead guitarist and singer in a psychobilly-rock band, stood before a judge in Reno, Nevada, in the fall of 2022, facing a state prison sentence of two to five years for possessing a stolen vehicle. The same judge had sent Chris to prison before.


Time for a foxhole prayer, Chris thought.


“Sentence me to the maximum of five-to-15 years but suspend the sentence while I am enrolled and successfully participating in the STAR Program,” Chris pleaded with the judge.

STAR, which stands for Support in Treatment, Accountability and Recovery, is a pilot probation program created in January 2022 by the Department of Alternative Sentencing in Washoe County, Nevada, to specifically tackle the opioid crisis that has ravaged parts of the county and so many communities across the United States. STAR aims to reduce criminal recidivism by addressing the underlying opioid addiction of many repeat offenders.


Chris, now 32, became addicted to opioids when he was about 12 years old, after repeatedly stealing his mother’s methadone. He started smoking heroin a couple of years later.


Since 2010, he has been arrested 26 times – “usually stealing to get money for food or drugs” – as well as being under the influence, failing to appear in court, and resisting arrest. He has been to numerous drug rehabilitation facilities and served multiple terms of probation, including as a juvenile. He has spent time in county jail and served one sentence in state prison for theft.

Quotation marks
"Sentence me to the maximum of five-to-15 years but suspend the sentence while I am enrolled and successfully participating in the STAR Program."

Chris Chamberlain-Nonan
Singer, guitarist, and STAR program participant

The judge granted Chris’s request to participate in STAR and ordered that he complete it during a sentence of 40 months of probation. If the terms of probation are met, Chris will avoid 12 to 48 months in prison, the judge ruled at sentencing.

The judge’s inclusion of STAR in Chris’s sentence is a testament to the results that drug intervention and rehabilitation programs created by Washoe County’s Department of Alternative Sentencing (DAS) have demonstrated to law enforcement agencies, the judiciary, and elected officials in the county and beyond that treating probationers’ underlying issues reduces recidivism and improves the quality of life throughout the community.

The linchpin of DAS intervention efforts is mandatory and random drug testing, sometimes as frequently as four times a week, said DAS Chief Justin Roper.

To make this possible, DAS created its own drug testing lab equipped with Thermo Fisher Scientific technology offerings and drug tests. Drug testing in this county is about catching relapses early and intervening with measures that usually do not include jail.

“Generally, people are not criminal by nature, usually it is caused by some kind of underlying issue,” Roper said.

Sober24 Chris Chris Chamberlain-Nonan

Chris was familiar with one success story from the grant-funded STAR Program – his wife.

“Prison sucks,” Chris said. “But the worst part is being away from my wife and prolonging the inevitable,” by which he meant getting off drugs in prison, only to get high upon his release. “I could see the STAR Program was working for my wife. I wanted to get clean with her.”


Evolving Attitudes

A tidal shift in attitudes about crime and addiction began more than a decade ago, Roper said. Everyone from police to probation officers and judges grew tired of seeing the same people filter through the courtrooms and jails. It costs approximately $178 a day to house someone in the Washoe County Jail and it didn’t seem like the best use of limited resources, Roper said. Simultaneously, Nevada and other states passed legislative reforms aimed at tackling overcrowded jails and prisons.


“For old-school probation officers like me, it was a big shift,” Roper said. It was much easier to throw a noncompliant probationer in jail and move on to the next person, he said.


Meanwhile, a new generation of law enforcement and probation officers entered the field with an education that said first treat the underlying issue. DAS Sergeant Andrew Sherbondy, who proposed the STAR Program, is part of the next generation of law enforcement.

Quotation marks
“Generally, people are not criminal by nature, usually it is caused by some kind of underlying issue.”

Justin Roper
Washoe County’s Department of Alternative Sentencing (DAS) Chief

“It’s not about a choice a person is making, it’s about treating a disease,” Sherbondy said. “If you treat the disease, the symptoms begin to remedy themselves. It’s not an opinion: The data is empirical proof.”

STAR personnel and programs, which include probation officers, clinicians, case workers, peer counselors, psychological and drug counselors, job training, and sober-living facilities, anticipate relapses. When it happens, personnel work with individual probationers to identify what led to the relapse and what factors need to be addressed to continue rehabilitation and the quest for sobriety. A probation officer may also increase the frequency of random testing.

“This approach definitely makes the job harder, but it is much more rewarding work,” Roper said. 

In 2023, DAS diverted probationers from 284,670 days in jail. At $178 a day per person, the county would have spent $50.7 million that year to keep those people locked up. Since the county jail cannot handle a big population, it is likely many people would have been released, untreated, back into the community, Roper said. Now that $50 million is being spent elsewhere in the community, including rehabilitation efforts, he said.

Washoe County’s Department of Alternative Sentencing (DAS) Sergeant Andrew Sherbondy Washoe County’s Department of Alternative Sentencing (DAS) Sergeant Andrew Sherbondy

Sober 24

DAS supervises people placed on probation for misdemeanor cases. People charged with a felony may also be sent to DAS before standing trial.


In 2015, DAS created Sober 24, its drug testing program with a name that nods to the 24-hour rule (one day at a time) for people in recovery. Back then, a drug test was a cup containing reagents, substances that reacted to the presence of drugs and alcohol in a urine sample, which produced a line to indicate positive or negative. The cups were limited in the substances for which DAS could screen, and were generally behind on emerging drug trends, Roper said.


DAS modernized its drug testing in 2019, with a combination of leased and purchased equipment from Thermo Fisher which included a medium-to-high-throughput analyzer capable of running hundreds of tests per hour for different substances. It was a major expenditure for the county, but officials were convinced the drug problem would not disappear.


Thermo Fisher’s technology offerings also included software that integrated with Washoe County’s state-mandated, case management system, allowing DAS to customize its drug-testing panels to meet the needs of the individual probationers and their drug predilections. 

Thermo Fisher provides DAS with 17 different immunoassays, or substance tests, including marijuana, methamphetamines, fentanyl, alcohol, benzodiazepines, and opiates, the most common drugs of abuse in Washoe County, Roper said. DAS has created a system of rotating assay panels, each containing a few identified as necessary for the individual and the illicit drugs currently circulating in the community, he said. It is less expensive than running every assay for every person and it is a way to remain unpredictable to probationers, he said.

Automation of drug testing has enabled DAS to increase its utilization of drug testing. Most DAS cases require twice weekly drug testing, though sometimes a third test may be added “to keep them guessing,” Roper said.

Before automation, Sober 24 performed 26,000 drug urine tests annually, Roper said. From May 19, 2019, when the new automated lab went online, until the end of that year, 45,284 samples were processed, using 328,353 assays. In 2022, Sober 24 purchased an even larger piece of equipment to handle the demand of more than 1 million tests annually.

“One of the great things about working with Thermo Fisher is that we can tell them about new drugs showing up here, such as kratom, and we can add it to the pool of drugs that we test for,” Roper said.

Washoe County’s Department of Alternative Sentencing (DAS) Chief Justin Roper Washoe County’s Department of Alternative Sentencing (DAS) Chief Justin Roper

Kratom is an opioid-like herbal substance that law enforcement agencies generally do not test for, he said. When it was added to DAS drug panels, there was a 30 percent positivity rate, which indicates addicts had switched to kratom to get high and avoid detection, he said.


The conversations with Thermo Fisher are ongoing because the drugs are always changing, he said. For instance, a more recent discussion with the company has been Washoe County’s emerging issue with xylazine, a non-opioid horse tranquilizer commonly known as “tranq.” Because it is cheaper than opioids, dealers are mixing it in with heroin, fentanyl, and cocaine to bulk up the volume without lessening the effect, Roper said. In late 2023, Thermo Fisher released a xylazine point-of-care test, based on feedback from Roper and other customers.


Other law enforcement agencies and specialty courts have noted Sober 24’s value, including domestic violence and felony courts. It now serves as a regional drug testing facility, providing best-practice drug testing services and quick turnaround of results to 27 local and regional agencies. Outside agencies, called “courtesy cases,” must pay a fee that covers the cost of supplies and usage of the analyzer.


Last year, DAS supervised about 791 probation cases, 1,255 pretrial cases, and 2,414 courtesy cases per month. In 2019, when Roper became chief of DAS, it averaged 802 probation cases, six pretrial cases, and 363 courtesy cases per month.


Word of Sober 24’s success has spread beyond the county. Judges from Clark County, which includes Las Vegas, contacted Roper seeking help to establish a testing center there modeled after Sober 24. When no municipality stepped up as the sponsor, Roper and his wife built Sober Testing Services, a private testing facility, again using Thermo Fisher technology, to service multiple agencies in the county.


Mandated and frequent, random drug testing is a key tool in STAR, Washoe County, Nevada’s alternative sentencing program aimed to address opioid addiction and criminal recidivism. Statistics from the program’s first year show participants are highly compliant.

A Look at Success

For many drug users, the specter of regular, random testing helps motivate them to get sober and stay that way.


Chris said he needed the forced accountability.


“Without all that testing, I wouldn’t have the level of confidence and comfort I now have in my sobriety,” he said. He continues to work through the STAR Program. He is working part-time at a pizza shop and recently applied to join the plumber’s union, with plans to begin an apprenticeship this year. Meanwhile, he continues to play guitar and sing with his band, Los Pistoleros.


Jasmin Malik, 30, is in recovery from a fentanyl addiction and recently graduated the STAR Program, said all aspects of random drug testing made her feel gnawing anxiety from the requirement to call Sober 24 every day to find out if a test was demanded, to paying a $5 fee every time she tested, to having to drive across town to the Sober 24 location. 


 “Your whole life revolved around this stressful thing, and it cost me at least $1,800 bucks and all the gas to get there (to Sober 24),” she said. When she stumbled and got high, the anxiety was even worse once she sobered up.


“Now that I’m clean I don’t have to go through that anxiety anymore,” Jasmin said. “Getting arrested was the best blessing that ever happened to me.”


Quotation marks
“Now that I’m clean I don’t have to go through that anxiety anymore. Getting arrested was the best blessing that ever happened to me.”

Jasmin Malik
STAR graduate, sous chef, and college student

She had been addicted to fentanyl for three years and was taking other drugs and drinking for about 11 years before that. She couldn’t bear the physical pain of withdrawal and kept falling deeper into her addiction, while her 5-foot-3-inch frame shrunk to 97 pounds. 

Her last arrest was for possession of drug paraphernalia – plastic bags containing fentanyl residue - while on her way to find drugs. In court to face those charges, a DAS representative approached her and offered the option of volunteering to enroll in the STAR Program. She became its 14th participant.

“I was almost 30 and had nothing to show for it,” she said recently. Since being sober, she has a job as sous chef with a French restaurant and is taking culinary classes at a community college thanks to a scholarship from STAR. 

“Within six months of being sober, I had my car paid off and a two-bedroom apartment that my probation officer says feels like an Air B&B. Now she’s attending college and planning, with her partner, to open a food truck someday.

"I’ve got so much back in my life and it’s way better than losing everything again.”

Jasmin Malik Jasmin Malik, STAR graduate, sous chef and college student