Howard County drug and DUI court program helps addicts stay sober

Jerry stood before the judge on a Wednesday morning. Appearing in court had become a regular occurrence for him in recent years, particularly so in the past year and a half.

This was a session of Howard County's Drug and DUI Court. For more than seven years, the grant-funded program has brought in addicted defendants who opt into the strict structure of urine tests, court appearances, meetings with case managers and recommended treatment plans that, by order of the judge, must be followed. Defendants are there willingly, referred into the program from the criminal court process.

"You've learned what life can be like to be clean and sober," Judge Neil Edward Axel said to Jerry, who had said before that he had only been clean when in jail or prison.

But now the 37-year-old had been drug- and alcohol-free for 18 months. Others sitting in the courtroom at Howard County District Court applauded. Axel handed him a certificate.

"This Monday," Jerry said, "will make 19."

"This is how we can make sure that they're going to obtain sobriety and maintain sobriety, by keeping check," said Bobbie Fine, the program's coordinator since it began in June 2004. A session for alcohol-related cases was added in January 2005.

Those who enter the program must be adults, cannot have been charged with a felony and must not have violent crimes on their records. Up to 50 people can be in the program at one time.

There are four phases, starting with biweekly court appearances, weekly case manager meetings and regular urine tests. Defendants might also have to wear a drug-testing patch or an alcohol-monitoring bracelet. The better a defendant does in the program, the sooner he or she will progress through the phases. They get more time between appearances and have fewer random drug tests.

There are graduation ceremonies every May and November. Defendants graduate after at least a year, depending on whether they relapse or miss treatment. Some remain in the program for two years or longer, depending on how long it takes for them to reach the final phase and stay sober.

Sixteen people are scheduled to graduate next month, bringing the total for the program past 100. As of last week, 96 people had entered the program for drugs and another 115 people entered the DUI court. Some of those who don't graduate decide to go back to the criminal court process. Others end up being kicked out, but some defendants who relapse can still remain in the program.

'There's no excuse'

Zachary, 25, had a positive drug test and missed two meetings with a health department therapist. "There's no excuse," he told the judge. "I need to go on antidepressants and stop self-medicating."

Said Axel: "We as a program, as a team, want to and will continue to work with you. We want to continue to try to help you to succeed."

The judge sentenced Zachary to four days in the Howard County Detention Center, though the defendant did persuade Axel to delay the jail time for several days so he could take off from work and not lose his job.

Daniel, 21, also had a positive drug test and missed meetings after being arrested twice, he said. Axel sentenced him to 15 days in jail, with the understanding that the balance of that time would be suspended as soon as he entered inpatient treatment.

"Simply putting you in jail and warehousing you isn't the answer," Axel said. "We know with you that treatment can work."

Repercussions for relapsing or missing meetings can range from a warning or community service to jail time. But defendants also get positive reinforcement when they do well.

"You can't just take an addict and say 'behave' and they're going to behave. It's not going to happen," Fine said. "You got to have patience. It's not adversarial. The defense and the prosecutor work together. We're all in it to help."

There were many like Jerry who received glowing reviews from their case manager.

Brandon, 21, was drug- and alcohol-free and looking to get his old job back. A 26-year-old named Jesse told the court he had "really taken everything as a learning opportunity" and would "share it with anyone who's willing to listen." He was expected to be promoted at work.

Those who graduate from the program have a recidivism rate of between 10 and 15 percent, Fine said. The program operates on about $250,000 a year in grants. That amount might only pay for six or seven people to be in jail, but it covers the cost of 50 people going through drug court at a time, she said.

Fine said more money would pay for another case manager and another judge, allowing the program to take on more defendants. There have been times, she said, when she had to turn people away from a program she knows makes a difference.

"You see the people when they come in. They're addicts. They look a mess. They don't take care of themselves and they're not working," Fine said. "You see them when they graduate. They wear suits to graduation. They have jobs. They're healthier. Their face is fuller. Their coloring is back.

"They say to me, 'You've saved my life. You've given me my life back. You've given me my family back.'"

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