THEIR VIEW: Drug Courts save lives

By The West Virginia Record | Jun 12, 2008

CHARLESTON -- I had the pleasure of speaking in January at the third graduation ceremony honoring participants in the Southern Regional Drug Court in Mercer County. I have often said that drug courts save lives, and one of the lives the Mercer County program has saved was the life of a young woman who also spoke that day. I would like to tell you her story.


CHARLESTON -- I had the pleasure of speaking in January at the third graduation ceremony honoring participants in the Southern Regional Drug Court in Mercer County. I have often said that drug courts save lives, and one of the lives the Mercer County program has saved was the life of a young woman who also spoke that day. I would like to tell you her story.

The woman's name is Melissa. She gave me permission to use her full name, but to protect her privacy and that of her family, I will use just her first. Melissa started drinking when she about 12 or 13, started smoking marijuana two years later and by the time she was 16 she was taking narcotics. Then she got pregnant. She quit drinking and all drugs while she was pregnant, but started in again as soon as her children were born. She had another son four years later. Her sons are now 18 and 14 and Melissa is now 34.

She had grown up around alcohol. Her mother was an alcoholic who started drinking when Melissa was a year old and Melissa's older brother drowned in a river. He was only 15. Melissa never knew her father, but she did have a stepfather who drank with her mother until her mother threw him out when Melissa was about 14.

Melissa's mom stopped drinking several years later. She just decided one day to stop and she never had another drink. Unfortunately, it wasn't that easy for Melissa.

She was arrested in May 2005 for conspiracy forgery and uttering; she had bought some items from a woman who had purchased them with a stolen credit card. Her arrest came shortly after her husband was arrested for drug dealing, a crime for which he was sent to prison.

The Mercer County prosecutor offered to drop the charges against Melissa if she entered what was then a proposed new drug court treatment program in Mercer County. She agreed because she didn't want to leave her sons alone with no parent.

Melissa entered the drug court program in May 2006, after she weaned herself off methadone. Once in the program, she did sixteen to twenty hours a week of community service, attended seven to eleven hours of classes each week, appeared before Mercer County Circuit Judge Derek Swope once a week and worked fifty hours a week at a new job at a convenience store near her home, a job she would not have been able to get if she had still been a drug user. She graduated from the program in June 2007.

She says the hardest part of the program was accepting she had a problem. The structure and discipline made her do a lot of soul-searching. It helped her come to terms with her past, led her to end her marriage, and helped her improve her relationship with her mother. She also credits the program with making her the mother she always wanted to be. Her sons are so proud of her, her youngest now aspires to work for the drug court when he grows up.

And through her new job, she met a new husband. They were married in February, by Judge Swope. She says the drug court provides the path, but it's up to each individual to get on it and stay on it. She says if it hadn't been for the drug court, she believes she would now be dead.

Like Melissa, the seven people who graduated from the Mercer County program in January had each spent at least a year in the drug court program.

Laura Helton, the southern regional drug court coordinator, says addiction is a struggle that has to be treated every day. The people who enter her program usually have never been recognized for achieving anything in their lives, not even in school. Completing the drug court program is a huge accomplishment for them.

While each graduate's case is unique, adult drug treatment courts generally serve only those who have either pled guilty or been found guilty of non-violent misdemeanors and felonies, and who were motivated to commit those crimes due to a substance abuse addiction. People can volunteer for the program to avoid jail and prison sentences, if a judge so orders. Prosecutors have final approval of all participants, and all participants must be evaluated as a low to moderate risk to be released back into the community.

People who have been charged with sex crimes or crimes in which a child was the victim are not eligible. Participants undergo substance abuse treatment and are heavily supervised by the Mercer County Day Report Center staff, probation officers, law enforcement and the sentencing court. If needed, they may also undergo treatment for mental illnesses. Participants may be forced to repeat certain phases if they have positive drug screens or if they refuse to cooperate. The judge may impose jail time if he feels it is necessary to make a participant follow the protocol.

Judge Swope supervises the drug treatment court in Mercer County, which opened in 2006.

There are two other adult drug treatment courts in West Virginia. The northern panhandle treatment court serves Brooke, Hancock, Ohio, Marshall and Wetzel counties. The mental health court has been operational since 2003 and the drug court has been operational since 2005. The West Central Drug Court Diversion Program opened in July 2007 to serve Wood and Wirt counties.

There are two juvenile treatment courts in West Virginia. The Wayne County Juvenile Drug Court Diversion Program opened in September 2007 and is a pre-adjudicatory program. The Cabell County Juvenile Drug Court Diversion Program reopened in August 2007. It began as a pre-adjudicatory program in 1999. Personnel changes and other issues led to the program's closure in November 2006.

Governor Joe Manchin included finding for drug courts in his 2008 State of the State address. I would like to thank Governor Manchin for acknowledging the hard work of judicial system employees. What began as a pilot project in the Northern Panhandle, started by Circuit Judge Martin J. Gaughan and a committed probation officer, Jim Lee, has proven effective. Besides the existing treatment courts, the Supreme Court is now training planning teams from eight other counties.

The planning teams met in Mercer County in November 2007 for the first part of a two-part training session. The second part of the training was held in January in Morgantown. The teams are from Kanawha, Monongalia, Greenbrier, Preston, Boone, Lincoln, Logan, and Cabell counties and want to set up drug treatment courts in their areas.

The teams include judges, magistrates, state and local police officers, prosecuting attorneys, public defenders, deputy sheriffs, county commission members, evaluators, probation officers, day report center employees, court administrators, psychiatrists, psychologists, and other community treatment personnel. The training is funded by a grant received from the West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources, Division of Alcohol and Substance Abuse.

With a decade of research supporting the effectiveness of adult drug treatment courts, such programs are now recognized as an important strategy to improve substance-abuse treatment outcomes and reduce crime. Treatment courts produce greater cost benefits than other strategies that address criminal activity related to substance abuse and addiction that bring individuals into the criminal justice system.

Laura Helton believes that if her program in Mercer County helps only one person, it has been worthwhile. Melissa's family would probably agree.

Maynard is Chief Justice of the West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals.

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