Getting a second chance

When Paul Brown was arrested for possession of cocaine twice within the same month in 2001, the 30-something Laguna Beach resident was facing felony charges, three and a half years in prison and a grim future.

Thanks to the Collaborative Courts rehabilitation program, established by Orange County Superior Court Judge Wendy Lindley 14 years ago as a means of helping substance abusers become "taxpayers and not tax takers," Brown was given the opportunity to clean up his act and have the charges against him dismissed.

Serving adult and juvenile drug offenders, DUI offenders, and the at-risk population of veterans, homeless and the mentally ill, Collaborative Courts use the power of the judiciary and collective skill of the probation and sheriff's departments, health care agencies, public defenders and District Attorney's offices and judges and staff to help those on a destructive path become functioning members of society. The program also saves millions of dollars in tax money — $7 for every $1 spent — that would otherwise be used to imprison them, Lindley said.

The program — typically 18 to 24 months — is designed to rehabilitate through a four-phase series of mandatory self-help meetings, individual and group counseling, employment or school enrollment and court attendance.

Participants accepted into the program remain under strict supervision, and are subject to random drug and alcohol tests and home searches.

"I had no intention of really getting sober when I went into the program," Brown said. "I just wanted to stay out of jail and then go back to the way I was living — using — after I had my charges dropped."

But amid his "faux recovery," Brown said he had an epiphanic moment in which he realized he'd been in denial of his addictions — a moment that suddenly jolted him into genuine mental and physical recovery.

"I never really believed I was an alcoholic or drug addict until that time," he recalled. "Suddenly, the process went from my head to my heart, and the desire and obsession was lifted out of me.

"There were so many times over the years when I'd thought, 'I should be dead. Why is God keeping me here?' Now I know I have a purpose, and that's to stay sober, be happy and help others."

Now sober for almost a decade, Brown devotes his free time to reaching out to others who face similar struggles, through the Community Courts Foundation in Laguna Beach.

Founded in 2006 by local Kathy Burnham, wife of former city attorney for Newport Beach, Bob Burnham, who also volunteers for the Foundation, the nonprofit aims to raise awareness, funds and community support for Lindley's Collaborative Courts program.

Through various fundraisers and tireless recruiting, the foundation is able to provide necessities like medical and dental care, as well as free eye care through Lenscrafter's Gift of Sight program, public transportation vouchers, scholarship opportunities, career and life skill workshops, independent living conferences and esteem-building and relationship seminars.

"We also organize cultural and family activities like trips to the Getty Museum, beach picnics and hiking excursions through Laguna Coast Wilderness Park, and bowling and baseball tournaments," Kathleen Burnham said. "Many [participants] become so estranged from their loved ones through their struggle with addiction and we find these activities really help to rebuild families."

A recent grant from the Laguna Beach Community Foundation of $4,500 will also benefit those in the Homeless Courts, a donation for which Burnham said she is most grateful.

Having volunteered for Lindley's Drug Courts Foundation prior to founding her own nonprofit, Burnham said much of her inspiration and compassion comes from being a mother, especially one who has been touched by personal stories of substance abuse and addiction.

"I realized how many people are impacted by addiction, and as a parent, I could relate to many of their stories," she said. "I also know how successful these programs are — the success rate is 80% — and that they have the power to make families whole again."

As a tax-paying citizen, she said her other motivation was to save millions of dollars in tax money that would provide jail and prison beds to inmates.

"Last year, the Drug Court saved more than $1,360,000; DUI Court more than $2,330,600; and Juvenile Drug Court more than $452,750," she said. "In addition, the program increases the rate of drug-free babies by helping mothers through these programs, saving the health care system millions of dollars."

The Community Courts Foundation will hold an "Autumn in Venice" fundraising event from 5:30 to 11 p.m. Oct. 30 at the Surf and Sand Hotel in Laguna Beach.

The event will include a Prix-Fixe four-course dinner, live music entertainment by Dave Dixon, scholarships and awards and a silent auction.

The Foundation is looking for artists in the community who will donate painted masks for auction, as well as various auction items.

Tickets are $150. To obtain a ticket, or to volunteer, call Burnham at (949) 494-6369.

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