ALPENA - On Tuesday, Greg A. got a round of applause from 88th District Drug Court participants as he took his certificate of graduation.
Greg spent 20 months and a week in the program following a felony drunk driving charge, he said. He's been sober for just over two years, and said the intensive program worked for him because he came to it with an open mind. Now, he's ready to move on.
"My higher power rides a Harley Davidson, and the (drug court) team was my kick stand," he said. "After today, I've kicked the kick stand up, and I'm ready to roll out. It's going to be a rocky ride, but it's like my dad always said - life's what you make of it."
News Photo by Jordan Travis
Eighty-eighth District Drug Court Judge Theodore Johnson speaks with one of the court’s 23 clients Tuesday. The drug court is aimed at helping repeat offenders with serious drug or alcohol addictions learn to lead a sober life, he said.
Judge Theodore Johnson said the program has had some success since it started in 2011. He and Alpena County Assistant Prosecutor Cynthia Muszynski pursued the idea after visiting other drug courts in the area, including one in Gaylord and another in Alcona County. Johnson has been on the bench long enough to see people get stuck in the "revolving door" of the jail system, where addicts get arrested, get out, reoffend and get arrested again.
"We've had some very good successes in this program," he said. "It's been very rewarding in a lot of respects. Some people have ... kind of really changed their lives, which we don't often see in the criminal justice system. This works."
Drug court isn't intended for everybody, Johnson said. It's meant for repeat offenders addicted to drugs or alcohol. The drug court team then considers a potential candidate's demographics, and brings in people who are considered "high risk, high need," at high risk of using drugs or alcohol again, and in high need of intensive supervision.
The idea is to teach participants how to lead a sober lifestyle, Johnson said. Drug court forces them to stay off drugs or alcohol, or face the consequences. Once they're clean, they get counseling on how to deal with everyday issues without using substances.
"Once they've done that, or at least done that for 18 months or 24 months of a program, it usually works, or at least we've found that it works," he said. "They don't necessarily go back to (using) as soon as they're done with the program. It's been kind of a life-changing pattern for them."
Along with breaking the old pattern, the program also provides a support network, Catholic Human Services Clinical Supervisor Larry LaCross said. He serves as the drug court team's clinical representative, and said participants' connection with other recovering addicts or alcoholics is a crucial part of their recovery.
"One of the most important things we know is that recovery from addiction needs support, people need support." he said. "They need a connection with other people who are going through similar problems, and they need a connection with other people who are successful in their recovery. I think that's where they get a lot of their tools that they need in order to stay sober."
This drug court consists of four phases over a minimum of 18 months, Muszynski said. Requirements for each phase varies, and the intensity lessens as participants progress. Those in the first phase must attend court weekly, while those in phase two can come every other week, and so on. Participants are randomly drug tested throughout, three times weekly during the first phase and down to once weekly for phase four. There were 23 participants as of Tuesday, and around 40 have been involved since the court's inception.
Those who aren't employed must be enrolled in school or completing four hours of community service each week. Participants in phase three without a full-time job must spend three hours each week getting education or searching for a job.
Participants also must attend treatment sessions with Catholic Human Services, and attend meetings with Alcoholics Anonymous, Narcotics Anonymous or both. Treatment session requirements lessen as participants progress, but not for AA or NA meetings.
Those who take part must regularly report to the drug court's probation officers, Muszynski said. Along with ensuring compliance, they help the participants connect with services.
"A huge role of the drug court and drug court probation officers is to help facilitate getting services from the community, and getting individuals involved with services provided in our community to help them transition into sober living," she said.
They're part of the drug court team, Muszynski said. She serves as the drug court team researcher and evaluator, and the team also includes a police officer, a representative from the Alpena County Prosecutor's Office and LaCross. Team members will give participants suggestions on how to move forward in the program.
There are incentives for following the rules, Muszynski said, the main incentive being those who meet the requirements move forward to the next phase.
"A lot of our incentives come from simply when a person appears in court, the judge will meet with them and talk to them individually, and tell them to keep up the good work," she said. "We know that even one day of not drinking and not doing drugs is hard for the individuals involved in our program."
There's also sanctions for those who slip up, Muszynski said. They range from writing an essay to additional hours of community service to jail time. Participants who prove to be unwilling to work with the program can be terminated from it.
Any participant convicted of or pleading to a felony is ejected as well, Johnson said.
Depending on what kind of arrangement participants reach through their attorney and the county prosecutor, graduates might get to skip jail time or spend no further time in jail, among other possible reductions in sentencing, Johnson said.
Studies have shown drug courts have a higher rate of success than jail or probation. Douglas Marlowe, David Dematteo and David Festinger cite two randomized experiments in their study, "A Sober Assessment of Drug Courts," that shows these success rates. Thirty-three percent of graduates from Maricopa County's drug court were rearrested within three years, while 47 percent of drug-abusing offenders under regular probation were rearrested. For Baltimore City Drug Court graduates, 66 percent were rearrested within two years, compared to 81 percent for the experiment controls. Forty-one percent of participants were rearrested for a drug-related offense, compared to 54 percent of the experiment controls over the same time frame.
Not only do these courts help more people get their lives turned around, it also can save local governments money. The National Association of Drug Court Professionals says they can save $3,000 to $13,000 per client as a result of less jail costs, fewer "revolving door" arrests and trials, and reduced victimization.
The 88th District Drug Court is paid for with a Department of Justice grant, along with another from the state, Muszynski said. The former is a three-year, $350,000 grant, awarded a year ago. There's some question as to how the court will be funded in the future.
Court officials will continue to apply for grants, but also have to look at alternatives, including options for self-funding, Johnson said. Participants do have to pay fees, but they don't cover the full costs.
"We're still looking for that, how we're going to do this," he said. "It's a priority that we're working on."