Williams County Drug Court Graduates Five From Program

Five people who were once facing time in jail or prison for possessing or using narcotics are headed in a new direction after graduating from Drug Court.

The program had its most recent ceremony May 17 at Williams County Court of Common Pleas. Since the program’s inception three years ago, there have now been eight graduates.

The five newest grads were Danialle Swan, Jarred Penrod, Melissa Jimmerson, Brandon Taylor and Sam Huff. All five have been clean and sober for more than 300 days and now no longer have probation to worry about.

Around 55 people attended the event in Judge J.T. Stelzer’s court room. The ceremony included testimonies from the graduates about their struggles with addiction and what completing the program means.

Dry eyes were few and following the ceremony, hugs were given and hands shook as family members, friends, and other participants congratulated the five.

The judge spoke of how he and Drug Court Coordinator Linda McDonald have went through each of the five’s files since their first day in felony Drug Court and before the pair began to plan the graduation ceremony. Each individual’s case history was reviewed.

“Each of your stories is amazing,” Stelzer said in his remarks. “You should be proud of what you have accomplished and the direction your lives have taken.”

McDonald paraphrased former first lady Hillary Clinton about it taking a village to raise a child. At Drug Court it takes a team working together to turn an addict onto the road to recovery.

The process is mind-boggling considering how the participants have to rewire their lives to overcome the cravings, triggers, to complete all the writing assignments and to make all the meetings and drug screens.  The process includes relapses, jail time due to sanctions and going in-patient when needing a higher level of care.

“They have working stable jobs, for some of them the first time in years,” McDonald said. “Almost all of you have been at jobs for a year, if not more.”

But for all the ceremony and emotional stories of people overcoming long held addictions, some could yet relapse and appear before Stelzer in the future. That’s still better than the rate (60-75 percent) of re-offending without the Drug Court.

Stelzer brought the program to Williams County to serve as another tool in the war against drugs. Its participants are users who are in the criminal justice system and want a way out.

Stelzer began practicing law 37 years ago and immediately began to do some felony case work. At the time drug-related criminal felony indictments accounted for 20 percent of all felonies. “The drug case really was the exception to the rule,” Stelzer said. About 10-15 years ago that started changing, he said. Now drug offenses account for 80-85 percent of all felony indictments, Stelzer said.

Before he started looking at Drug Court, Stelzer found that many of the people who were charged with a drug crime re-offended before the original case could come to court. He was aware of specialty dockets or drug courts and, with the help of his chief probation officer, began to look at other counties who had such courts.

“We sat in on a couple of different other ones,” Stelzer said. “liked what we saw; liked the concept. And what is really is just additional tool available to us to help people who are non-violent offenders, non-dealers and low-level felony offenders.”

The next step for Stelzer was to apply to the Ohio Supreme Court to be able to be certified as a Specialty Drug Court. The court’s first hire was Linda McDonald as Drug Court Coordinator. Grants from the state Supreme Court and the ADAMhs board covered the cost of hiring her, Stelzer said.

Since the Drug Court is just another tool at the criminal justice system’s disposal, its effect is small, but it plays a part. “We’re not solving all the problems,” Stelzer said. “But we are helping attack a huge problem.”

“In less than two years, that’s not bad,” McDonald added.

Drug Court has 27 people involved currently, McDonald said. Of those, 16 are gainfully employed. Three are at CCNO, and three more are involved with inpatient treatment, she said.

“Five of those not employed are in early stages where they are really not required to be employed,” McDonald said. “Everyone that can be employed is employed right now.”

Drug Court is a five-stage process. The state Supreme Court recently expanded it from three to five, McDonald said.

Phase 1 is a two-month process that determines what kind of treatment the person needs for their addiction (detox, outpatient and the like). Any mental health issues are addressed. “So we are really just getting them stabilized,” McDonald said.

Phase 2 focuses on prevention of relapses. The person may get their first doctor visit in years. Since some addictions like meth can damage teeth, a trip to the dentist occurs. Since it was pain that got many people hooked on drugs, the participants are steered away from those approaches. “You have to address so many other issues,” McDonald said. “That’s what these phases are all about – addressing all those (issues).”

Phase 3: Participants go through classes on Criminal Thinking to show them how to change their thinking and cut correctional counseling. They concentrate on their support groups. “(They are) trying to build a network of people, places and things that will keep them in the covenant,” McDonald said.

Phase 4: The participants are expected to get a job and go to work or college. Parenting classes are offered.

Phase 5: The participant shows what they learned in the 14-month process.

“If they ever relapse it will be a little bit longer,” McDonald said. No one regresses in the stages, but relapses or other crimes and misbehavior can result in sanctions. “Those are used to modify behaviors.”

Sanctions are used because Drug Court focuses on problem solving over punishment McDonald said. When a participant slips up, the judge talks to them about it.

In the beginning a treatment provider or their residential supervisor will test them three times a week and their probation officer can randomly test them as well.

“That’s part of what makes this process work,” Stelzer said. “They realize they will be tested randomly many times throughout their participation. There are a lot of people watching.”

That cloud of witnesses include: probation officers, Drug Court representatives and treatment team providers. Since all eyes are on the subjects, the watchers are in constant communication, Stelzer said. “So one hand knows what the other is doing,” Stelzer said.

The treatment team meets on a bi-monthly basis to discuss a person’s case before they convene in court to hear each participant give an accounting of themselves. The treatment team could include 8-12 people discussing what an individual did right or wrong since the last session, Stelzer said.

“One by one we call them up and review their cases,” Stelzer said. “The ones who have not been called have all been through the same process of trying to beat these addictions. The accountability keeps them on track.”

Drug Court is not a slap-on-the-wrist process. The participants are held accountable on a strict no-tolerance policy. At their accountability sessions before the judge or magistrate, they have to own up to the good and bad in their lives.

That includes relapses in use, any crimes they may have committed or whether they have kept all of their appointments or notified their counselor or probation officer beforehand when they are going to be absent. For these infractions, the judge or magistrate could impose penalties up to jail time.

At a recent court session, several people were absent due to either being suspended, inactive, in prison or continuing while at CCNO. The participants who did attend were brought up one by one by Magistrate Karen Gallagher.

The magistrate read off the number of days each person had been clean and sober. Some were less than 10 days, while others were more than 250-300. The magistrate announced their job status and how well they had attended meetings and screenings. Participants are reminded to be honest with their counselors and probation officers at all times. Not alerting their contact with a narcotic can bring punishments. No excuses are accepted.

Others receive encouragement, while the newer members are encouraged to remember there is a “Wall Stage” which comes after the honeymoon phase. This is when participants discover Drug Court is a long process.

By going through the court, the participants learn how to recognize their triggers for using drugs and to become more disciplined in how they live so they can become contributing members of society once again. Getting a job is a requirement of Drug Court as the individuals have to repay their supervisory fees.

It’s not all punishment as members who achieve certain milestones can get small prizes or a coupon for $50 off their fees.

Despite all these safeguards, Stelzer knows there is a 60-75 percent chance he will see many of these people before him in the future. “We know that,” Stelzer said. “No matter how much they are saying the right thing. No matter how hard they are trying, studies tell us somebody is going to relapse.”

When someone has a relapse they can be put back into the criminal justice, sent for treatment or some other approach. Drug Court is just a more direct way to deal with a person, Stelzer said.

People who are participating in Drug Court have waived a lot of their constitutional rights so authorities can immediately act on a relapse.  All rights that are waived are done so after a review by a person’s counsel. This allows the court to skip over due process and back into treatment. “We do what the drug treatment team believes is necessary to get them back on track,” Stelzer said. “That’s the benefit.”

As with all silver linings, there’s generally a dark cloud in the vicinity, however.

“It doesn’t work with everybody; it really doesn’t,” Stelzer said. “We’ve had people who we’ve had to remove from Drug Court because they were not trying and continued with the relapses and saw no improvement. It’s not a cure-all, it is one more tool.”

In two years, about nine people have been removed from Drug Court, McDonald said. Part of her job is to determine if people really want help. “A lot of those had just begun, you could tell it just wasn’t going to work,” McDonald said. “Some people are high-risk. “I meet people who are high risk for relapse, they are not just people who are going to quit real easily.”

People can make the application for Drug Court at different levels of the criminal justice system. Some can do so as intervention in lieu of conviction where it can be a condition of a person’s intervention plan, Stelzer said.

“The goal of that is to treat somebody, get them through the treatment process,” Stelzer said. “And if they complete the treatment process, then the conviction is not against their record.”

Others are on probation or community control who would have already pleaded guilty. Participation is just a condition of their probation or community control, the judge said. “We have people that have been to prison one, two, three, four times for other cases and they have finally reached a point in their lives when they say ‘I’ll do it.’”

One recent participant had been to prison three or four times and spent around four years total incarcerated for drug crimes. She reached a point in her life where there was no place to go but up, the judge said. “She worked her tail off and got through the program,” Stelzer said. “She’s now a graduate working full time and making the right decisions.”

Even though the woman has graduated, she faces a lifetime fight against drugs, and it would not shock the judge to see her back in court some day. “It’s not for everybody,” Stelzer said. “It’s for non-violent, low-level drug offenders; no traffickers,” Stelzer said. “We’re looking for people at that stage in their life who are willing to put the hard work in.”

Following the graduation Stelzer reflected on the five new graduates. Each had a compelling story of getting hooked and the long battle to get clean. The judge was visibly pleased with the celebratory mood. “Just being proud of their efforts, Stelzer said. This is why we put in this time and effort. All the credit goes to the participants, you heard their stories, what they have had to battle through.  And these are truly successful. None of us can understand where they’ve been.”

The program has 26 people in various stages and as they graduate, more are added.

“It’s well worth the effort,” Stelzer said. “It’s working well, not for everybody. A lot of people are struggling.”

While not everyone makes it, as the relapse rate shows all too well, the judge said the success stories will have a ripple effect on the community at large.  Chief probation officer Lori Bolton-Sell, a 20-year veteran, said the graduation makes her job worth it. The criminal justice system has changed a lot with the heroin epidemic, and with people dying, her mission is clear: saving lives. “Today we saved five more lives,” Borton-Sell said.

Seeing the judge release them from probation gives her a good feeling. It was heartwarming for her to see all the treatment professionals attend the graduation. “We hope they don’t come back,” Borton-Sell said. “It’s wonderful to see the support in the courtroom and the treatment team, because probation and the court can’t do it alone. We had an overdose this week and these people are still alive,” Borton-Sell said.

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