Lee County drug program helps offenders get treatment
Nov 17, 2012 (Menafn - Opelika-Auburn News - McClatchy-Tribune Information Services via COMTEX) --A prescription pill habit cost Justin Masters his job with Charter Communications.
The 29-year-old was arrested while driving in a company vehicle in January 2011 after attempting to buy prescription pain pills from an undercover Opelika police officer, according to court records.
"I started chewing pills... I ended up shooting them with a needle," Masters said of his drug habit.
His mother said she didn't know her son was abusing pills until he called for help with bail.
Cathy Masters said her son was a responsible family man, a young father with a good job.
"It is just something we never saw coming," she said. "It was a shock."
Thursday, Masters' life continued its creep back toward normalcy as he and 10 others graduated from Lee County's drug court, a program that seeks to reduce recidivism and crime by helping nonviolent drug offenders get treatment instead of sending them to prison or putting them on probation. Lee County's program began taking applications in February 2011 and has had 15 graduates so far. The court has about 40 active participants currently.
In a courtroom packed with participants of the program, Masters and others received certificates commemorating their achievements.
Retired Judge Pete Johnson, who started a drug court in Jefferson County in 1995 and helped establish drug courts across the state, congratulated Masters and the other graduates.
"You've taken control of your life," he said. "You need to be real proud of yourselves, it's not easy."
Sitting in the back, Cathy Masters teared up as she watched the courtroom applaud her son, who thanked his family for their support and assured the other participants their lives could change too if they took the opportunity before them.
The alternative court offers defendants like Masters the opportunity to avoid a felony conviction and receive treatment for drug addiction. Its participants are diverse in age, education, profession and race.
Lee County Circuit Court Judge Jacob A. Walker III said drug court blends the court system and treatment. It's a nontraditional approach, he said, that got its start in the late 1980s when a Miami judge, frustrated by the ineffectiveness of a purely criminal justice approach amid a crack cocaine epidemic, developed an alternative for nonviolent drug offenders to get the help they needed.
" Our court system, by design, is adversarial," Walker said. "And this is a little bit different model. Everybody is rooting for these people to succeed."
The staff wants to help the participants avoid becoming repeat offenders because of their drug habits.
"The whole idea of it is to try to stop the revolving door," Walker said.
The process begins when an offender applies for drug court. Walker said participants are required to plead guilty to the charge against them, but, upon completion of the program, the plea and charges are set aside. If they fail to complete the program, the guilty plea is enforced.
"It's the carrot and stick kind of idea," said drug court defense attorney Samantha Burt of Haygood, Cleveland, Pierce & Thompson LLP.
Applicants must be older than 18, without prior convictions for violent crime or drug trafficking and willing to submit to the treatment plans laid out by the court. The applications are reviewed by a committee made up representatives from local law enforcement, the court staff, a defense attorney and a substance abuse treatment center. Applicants undergo a clinical assessment by a court referral officer or the staff of a treatment clinic.
"Together, we try to come up with the best answer for each person," Burt said.
Burt, who represents the participants through the process, said offenders may apply for drug court in district or circuit court.
Applicants approved by the screening committee are put on a special docket and required to undergo periodic drug tests, maintain frequent contact with the staff and follow treatment instructions.
Court Administrator Patricia Campbell said the program is phased and may last as long as two years.
In many cases, Walker said, it takes at least a year for the cravings to subside and old habits to fade. He believes one of the more difficult challenges of the program for participants is complying with all of the requirements, including keeping up with court dates, testing and checking in with court staff.
"That is a lot you are throwing at some one in the first two months," he said.
Participants face sanctions for failing drug tests or other missteps. Campbell said the sanctions include being demoted a phase in the program, sometimes back to the beginning.
"We try to make sure they know it's not the end ..., but it is a speed bump ..." Burt said. "We don't want them to give up ..."
Walker said the program's few dropouts have occurred early in the process.
Masters said the process requires a participant's complete commitment and is intimidating at first.
"You have somebody looking over you shoulder the whole time," he said.
Graduate Evan Coffey, who was arrested for possession of a controlled substance in 2010, struggled early in the program.
" ... Just staying clean ... it's just so hard," Coffey said. "I had to get out of Auburn."
Coffey, 22, a former Southern Union State Community College student, said he returned to Mobile to escape a partying lifestyle that undermined his goals in the program.
"There is a lot of change going on in their lives ... things that they used to do, the things that made them feel normal," Burt said.
But Walker and Burt said the participants find a new sense of normalcy and friends in drug court, which helps some find employment or earn a GED diploma.
"It ends up being a rewarding experience," Burt said.
Walker said some of the gains are unexpected _ such as reuniting with family members estranged over drug use.
"There are a lot of other benefits that quite frankly, at the time, we didn't realize would be there for people," he said.
For Masters, who traded well-wishes with the staff at a reception after the graduation ceremony, there is the hope that, with drug court behind him, he can regain a well-paying job like the one he lost to pills.
"It's a totally different lifestyle," Masters said. "This program really works; you have to have it in your head you want to do it."
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