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Drug court celebrates three years

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By Susan Sharp

For those who battle substance abuse the Eight Judicial Drug Court provides them something they may not have otherwise- hope.

For the last three years the court has extended a hand, sometimes a firm one, to those who say they want to kick the habit.

But make no mistake, this program is not for the timid.

“These people have seen things we have only read about,” said Criminal Court Judge Shayne Sexton. It was Sexton who brought drug court to the area and now presides over its weekly sessions.

Once past the screening process, participants are faced with reality. A reality where accountability and responsibility are the keys to success.

For many that is the first time anyone has expected this of them.

“It is a tough program,” according to Drug Court Coordinator Jonathan Finley. “We try to provide them with structure.”

Working their way through the four phases, participants are required to be in school or have a job; are routinely drug tested and are asked to keep journals.

As they work the program, a 14-member team, 12 of which are volunteers, assists the participants.

Watching the team, it is evident they are that the foundation.

Prior to each Thursday afternoon court session, the team meets to discuss the progress and sometimes the setbacks of those on the approaching docket.

Details ranging from the mundane to the critical are discussed. The group attempts to look at all sides of the issues the participants are facing.

It is also in these meetings where the referrals are screened for acceptance. A conviction of a violent offense rates an automatic denial to the program.

As court begins one by one, drug screens are conducted. Then Sexton calls on those in court for a progress update.

His approach in this court is different from the one he takes in criminal court.

With each person, Sexton asks how he or she is and then he waits for answer. Those who say things are not going well are urged to share what is happening.

Amanda Parker openly admits to battling feelings of depression when Sexton calls her to the bench. Parker is staying in a halfway house. While she is at work 40 hours a week, Parker claims her housemates are violating rules, making everyone in the facility pay the price.

Sexton uses the analogy of a working spouse coming home and being hit with events of the non-working spouse’s day to talk with her. He advises her “to know herself” as a way to cope with the pressures she is facing.

Before she leaves, Sexton reminds her “We are rooting for you.”

At that moment Parker smiled.

Angie McDaniel is also treated to a mini counseling session.

Prior to being called to the bench, she sat in the jury box wearing a jail jumpsuit and handcuffs. McDaniel’s face was set in what appeared to be rebellion while she waited to be called. As she walks toward the bench, her stride mimics her facial expression.

Once there McDaniel stopped cocking one of her hips out to the side.

“How are you Angie,” Sexton asked her.

In that moment, McDaniel’s wall appeared to crumble. The tears rolled and the apologies began to flow.

Listening to her it becomes clear she has violated the rules of the court and had some harsh words for team members.

“I owe you an apology. I am sorry about the way I talked to you,” McDaniel offers to Finley and court case manager Amy Long.

The judge wants to know if she is willing to reenter the program. A broken “yes sir” is heard through McDaniel’s tears.

Is this a hug a thug program?

No Sexton and Finley agree.

“We don’t kid ourselves. We know the risks of dealing with addicts,” Sexton said.

Finley, who is a numbers guy, says the statistics show the process works.

In its three years in the district, drug court has produced five graduates. Five people whom before entering the program had a combined 81 arrests. Since getting sober and reclaiming their lives, none of them has reoffended, Finley said.

He adds that it is just not the graduates who are not reoffending; the non-graduates show a reduction in criminal activity as well.

“Word is getting out,” according to Finley. “Drug courts are the best way to deal with addicts.”

Looking back on the last three years both men agree that the fluidness of the program has been part of its success.

The team of 14 has the highest training level to date, Sexton said. He adds that while the team is by far operating at its most efficient level yet, they are still learning. But most of all everyone on the panel “believes in the program.”

Sexton also points the finger squarely at Finley when asked what the most positive change to the court had been.

“He has brought stability,” the judge said. “The growing pains never stopped until Jon came on board.”

During the last three years, Sexton said the team had learned the participants needed stability. “We owe it to them, to maintain that type of stability.”

Now if Sexton can’t be in court to preside over cases, Finley administers the drug screens and everyone is told to report back at the next session. Sexton said past practice had been to allow someone to sit in for him. However, that has stopped.

“We need to trust our structure,” Sexton said.

Through the years Sexton says he has had to change the way he deals with the participants.

Coming to terms with the fact that 28 days alone does not make an addict sober was the turning point Sexton said he had. An expanded knowledge of the disease of addiction has also helped, Sexton asserts.

Finley has worked on “getting book smart on addiction,” according to Sexton. In turn, he has educated the team. Armed with a strong knowledge base on the science of addiction the team now works on detailed treatment plans for those trying to get sober.

“The plans are as unique as the people,” Sexton said.

 These plans include paying financial obligations racked up along their wayward paths. For some that can be the make or break point.

“It is important to their recovery to take care of the people they have victimized,” Sexton said. Facing their past crimes with a sober mind can be difficult, “it is much more painful,” the judge said.

However, keeping this in mind, participants are not required to start the payment process until they are deemed ready by the team.

As the addicts work towards sobriety, Sexton says they sometimes forget where they started.

 “We have literally pulled them from the prison door,” he said.

In the court session last week, Sexton stopped court momentarily after McDaniel walked away. “Sometimes our participants forget where they were. The pen is the reason you are here, you were in trouble,” Sexton says with a sweeping gaze across the courtroom.

“We are here to keep you out, to keep you clean and sober,” Sexton said.

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