By CAROLE ROBINSON, Staff Writer
Imagine a court of law where the judge, the public defender, the district attorney and law enforcement all work together to dole out a punishment that includes a rehabilitation program.
Such a system does exist for non-violent drug offenders. It’s called the 21st Judicial Drug Court, which covers Williamson, Hickman, Perry and Lewis Counties.
Since 2002, Drug Court administrators have been working as a team to make decisions that both punish and assist participants in their recovery from substance abuse.
“Drug Court is a special problem solving court that is unique in the criminal justice system,” said Gayle Moyer-Harris, Drug Court coordinator. “It integrates directly with the court system and the treatment system. It helps individuals get caught up and return to the community productive.”
Traditional courts may mandate treatment, but Drug Court integrates treatment, mental health services and the court system. And it costs less than incarceration, Moyer-Harris said.
Drugs and alcohol abuse are a serious problem in Williamson County, with more than 80 percent of the crimes committed drug or alcohol related, according to Moyer-Harris.
“We take adult defendants who are non-violent — that is most critical — whose criminal action is proven to be a direct result on an addiction or chemical dependency,” Moyer-Harris said.
Drug Court does not excuse the behavior, Moyer-Harris cautioned. Participants still have to repay society and fulfill their sentence. Offenders must recognize the seriousness of their disorder and accept responsibility, and if they are successful in the program, sometimes they can have the charges dropped or sentences shortened.
The Drug Court program is long and demanding — a minimum of two years under intensive supervision — but the reward is to recover and return as a productive member of society.
“Our participants are all fine people,” Moyer-Harris said. Many have lost everything: family, home, job and their faith, she said.
“We do find universally that people when we get them have lost everything, including their beliefs and values systems,” Moyer-Harris said. “They have to relearn values and character.”
Participants are eligible for Drug Court after they have been unable to meet the terms of their probation because they used drugs or alcohol again. The program is a long process and it is not easy, but it offers avenues and resources participants can use for the rest of their life.
Once accepted into the Drug Court program, participants spend 70 days in jail, even if they have already been in jail — where treatment begins with daily, one-on-one and group counseling. Once out of jail they are required to live in the community, hold a full-time job or have the equivalent of school and part-time employment, attend treatment sessions three time a week, attend at least three 12-step meetings each week, check in at Drug Court once a week to report on progress, obey a curfew and submit to drug testing at least three times a week.
To help participants with the transition from drug user to jail to the world of Drug Court, the court recently secured a transition house where participants can begin to put their new life back together. The temporary residence allows participants a place to live, away from their former life, until they can find a job and a place of their own.
Jennifer’s story is classic. She started with alcohol and marijuana when she was 16 years old and dropped out of school at 17 when she had her first baby.
By the time she was 21 Jennifer had moved up to powder cocaine.
“That was my downfall,” she said. “At first I used on weekends — not heavy — and I still continued using marijuana and picked up drinking. I got into Drug Court in August of 2003.”
When she joined Drug Court, she had lost everything she owned three times, couldn’t keep a job, and didn’t have a very high opinion of herself.
Since Jennifer has been with the program she has relapsed a couple of times, but a relapse does not necessarily mean release from the program although it can mean a trip back to jail to get back on track and a stepped up treatment program.
“The staff is trained in addiction and understands there is no immediate cure and there can be slips,” said Moyer-Harris.
Jennifer is now living day-to-day setting small goals, reveling in each success, celebrating every day and willing to do whatever it takes to stay clean.
“Some people say they found God in jail, for me it was true,” she said. “Drug Court gave me responsibility and structure, but I still had to work on my story some more. I found God wasn’t letting things happen to me. I was doing it to myself. God never left me, I left him.”
“I don’t have to tell lies anymore. I can look people in the face when I talk to them — that’s different. Today I have the tools to keep me from using. God is working miracles in my life right now.”
Posted on: 1/25/2007