Monday, January 11, 2010

Drug Court Offers Alternative

Published: Friday, December 25, 2009 3:05 PM EST

BEAUFORT — John Doe stood before the judge in a special court for nonviolent drug offenders, head hung low.

The man, whose name was changed at the court’s request for this story, has a history of drug abuse and related crimes and was in Carteret County Close Watch Drug Treatment Court, known as Drug Court.

The court is an alternative program with the goal of helping nonviolent offenders with drug or alcohol addictions arrested on drug-related charges break the grip of addiction, turn their lives around and keep them out of jail.

Mr. Doe has been in the program five months and, until recently, did fairly well. But for this session of court he went to great lengths to falsify his drug test. Although he pleaded for consideration and leniency, he is dismissed from the program.

Superior Court Judge Ken Crow presided over the session of Drug Court. He told Mr. Doe the decision to dismiss him is no harder on him than on the court. However, the judge didn’t make the dismissal decision alone, but in collaboration with a Drug Court staff and, he said, the staff may sometimes be tougher than the judge.

“I only preside over the court, any decisions per a case are made by all the staff, not just by me,” he said. “Sometimes decisions are made that are difficult for all of us and that is demonstrated in court today.”

The Drug Court staff includes Coordinator Lynn Holton, assistant defense attorney Katharine Taylor, public defender Jane Burke, Probation Officer James McCormick, Chief Probation Officer Ben Urick and Nikki Wilson of the N.C. Treatment Accountability for Safer Communities (TASC).

Judge Crow told Mr. Doe he had been doing fairly well and the program’s goal is to help.

“But we expect the offender to show up, man up if they have slipped and suck it up when a sanction is handed down,” he said. “Most of all we expect everyone to be honest.”

Sanctions can range from jail time to dismissal from the program. In a recent visit to that court by The News-Times, the defendants’ names were withheld. In their continuing efforts to change life styles and overcome, it is important the defendants’ be protected from public pressure or misguided opinion.

TASC provides care management services to people with substance abuse or mental illness and is involved in the justice system. It combines the influence of legal sanctions with treatment and support services to permanently interrupt the cycle of addiction and crime.

In addition to Mr. Doe, the Drug Court staff has handed down sanctions against two other offenders who admitted they have slipped prior to court. One used a cold medication not allowed by the guidelines and the second had taken a prescription painkiller for a toothache.

Although they received 72 hours in jail, their overall performance and honesty prevented them from getting kicked out of the program.

A third defendant, Jane Doe, was also in court, but she was an apparent success. As she went before Judge Crow, he and the staff commended her on her achievement in Drug Court and she was greeted with a round of applause.

“You have worked hard and demonstrated your willingness to overcome and we are proud of you,” Judge Crow told her. “We know you have some stresses on you, but you have chosen to deal with them in a positive way.”

He presented her with a gold coin to acknowledge her achievement.

“I had been clean 12 years,” Ms. Doe said in an interview. “I slipped and I got arrested. This court has been a blessing and I remain clean. “

She said it isn’t the coin that is as important as the pride she feels in her accomplishment.

“I have no family here, no one to talk to and I felt like no one cared about me. So I reverted back to cocaine for comfort,” she said. “But this group has a way of making you feel good about yourself and making me feel I want to help others, too. With their support, I am stronger.”

Ms. Doe said she pays her accomplishment forward and now helps others.

“My phone rings all the time with cries for help,” She said. “And that is fine. They need help I need to help them, too.”

Along with the gold coin, incentives for achievement can range from gift certificates, recognition, reduced court appearances, reduced court fees, modification in parole and even a party. These incentives are part of the comprehensive and individualized treatment the court offers the abuse offender, all at a minimal cost to the community.

“All the members of this court are volunteers and do not get paid for our contribution,” Judge Crow said.

Drug Court is in its 10th year of service. Superior Court Judge James Reagan started drug Court in Carteret and Craven counties in 1999.

In a recent phone interview, Judge Reagan said repeat offenders were coming before him to face drug-related charges, but they were denying a problem with drug or alcohol abuse.

“With the inception of drug testing analysis, it was evident they were using consistently and by the time the courts caught them most had been long-term users,” he said. “These individuals could be a one-man crime spree to support their habit but, for some, sending them to jail was not the only alternative.”

The judge said he became aware of a system in use in courts in Charlotte and Greensboro that provided an alternate solution to jail.

“We went and observed what they were doing and got the training to initiate the same system locally,” he said.

According to Judge Reagan, some repeat offenders do not have criminal minds but have gotten caught up in failure and a negative lifestyle.

“We recognized this and saw they would probably respond better with a structured setup applicable to their circumstances,” he said. “We knew we were battling drugs or alcohol abuse and it was not going to be cured overnight. There were going to be setbacks. We understood this and considered it when possible. We started the program and it has worked. We are thrilled every time an offender successfully completes this program.”

Offenders become eligible for the court if they are on supervised probation and show evidence of substance abuse issues that may interfere with the ability to successfully complete probation. Program participants are 16 years of age and older, not a registered sex or violent offender and have no pending charges that would impact their ability to complete the program.

By integrating court monitoring, intensive community supervision, regular drug testing, court team decision-making and consistent implementation of sanctions and incentives, the court meets the needs of the offender and reduces the cost burden on the taxpayer, too. It cost $30,000 annually for the state to house one offender in prison.

The requirements of Drug Court include attending and completing a minimum of one year in a drug treatment program, twice monthly court appearances, attend Alcoholics or Narcotics Anonymous meetings, set goals for education and employment.

“The public says these offenders have created their problem,” Judge Reagan said. “That may be true, but for those of us who have dealt with it on a professional or even a personal basis we have a different understanding.”

Close Watch Drug Court meets on the first and third Friday every month. A morning session is held in Craven County with the afternoon session held in the afternoon in Carteret County.

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