Hamilton Herald Masthead


Front Page - Friday, January 28, 2011

Hamilton County Drug Court changing lives for good

Hamilton County Drug Court is an alternative sentencing program for non-violent drug offenders. Elaine Kelly, left, is the coordinator of the program. She’s pictured with Crystal Couch, her program assistant and a former client who’s been clean three-and-a-half years. - David Laprad
Crystal Couch prints a copy of her mug shot, taken a few years ago, after police had arrested her for using narcotics. She then pulls the sheet of paper out of the printer tray and looks at it. She barely resembles the girl staring back at her from the page.
The 18-year-old addict in
the photo looks strung out, ticked off and in need of a square meal. Her skin is sallow, her face sunken and there are rings around her eyes. Despite the physical toll of the drugs, she looks like she’s already thinking about the next time she can get high.
“I’d been arrested about a dozen times. I was walking into the houses of strangers; I was getting into the cars of people I didn’t know. I’d gotten to the point where I didn’t even have the ability to stop using long enough to take a shower and attempt to go to court,” she says.
One day, her public defender suggested Drug Court, an alternative sentencing program in Hamilton County for non-violent offenders. He said it would take more than a year, but there was a light of hope at the other end of the tunnel.
Couch was only interested in staying out of jail.
“My goal wasn’t to stop using drugs forever; I was just tired of living the way I’d been living, and I didn’t know how to stop. It was always, ‘If I could just get this job,’ or, ‘If I could just move to this neighborhood.’ It was never, ‘If I could just stop using drugs.’ I didn’t want to stop using; I wanted the consequences to stop,” she says.
Couch met the two main criteria for being eligible for Drug Court: she was a non-violent offender and she had a substance abuse problem. So Judge Rebecca Stern, who presides over the court, sentenced her to the program.
Elaine Kelly, coordinator of Drug Court, says she didn’t realize Couch was coming with adoption papers.
“She came to us just before her 19th birthday. She could have done her time in Silverdale quicker than she did Drug Court, but she didn’t understand addiction, and that’s what treatment does.
“Drug court is a marriage between criminal justice and treatment. If criminal justice worked on its own, then we wouldn’t have a treatment problem; we’d be able to incarcerate people and they’d be okay. There’s a population of people that need both,” she says.
Drug Court is a five-phase program. Judicial supervision plays a part in each phase. During phase one, which lasts 90 days, a client must meet with Judge Stern every week. Rather than being a routine exchange between Judge Stern and the client’s attorneys, the interaction brings the judge and the addict face to face. Kelly was stunned the first time she saw a Drug Court judge speak with a client.
“Normal court proceedings are a lot like what we see on TV. The judge sits at the front, the attorneys are up there with him, and no one is talking with the defendant. The attorneys make the arrangements, and at some point the defendant stands up and answers one or two questions and then sits back down.
“But in drug court, the individual comes up and talks with the judge. She might ask how your birthday was, and what it was like not drinking. Judge Stern is phenomenal. She gets what addiction is,” Kelly says.
The Drug Court staff meets every Monday at the Hamilton County criminal courthouse, discusses each case on that day’s docket and offers Judge Stern their thoughts. Everyone has a voice – from Kelly, to her case managers, to the prosecutor and defense attorney, to the treatment clinician, treatment liaison and house arrest representative.
“It’s not me having a bad hair day and judging someone; it’s a group process. And if someone needs a sanction, like picking up trash on the side of the road, then the judge addresses that. And if someone needs an incentive, then we do what we can,” Kelly says.
Phase one of Drug Court also includes 90 treatment meetings, weekly appointments with a case manager, an 8 p.m. curfew and a minimum of two random drug tests per week. Judge Stern orders most clients to complete a residential component as well, Kelly says.
“If you’re coming out of jail, we can’t give you much freedom because you’ll fail. What are you going to do while you wait to see the judge? Have a cup of tea?”
Developing a taste for Earl Grey was the farthest thing from Couch’s mind. After completing 28 days of residential treatment at CADAS and being transferred to a halfway house, Couch went out to look for work. Instead of putting in applications, she got high.
“I was too scared to go back, so the judge issued a warrant for my arrest. I was out about a week before I was back in jail. I wasn’t good at being a fugitive,” Couch says.
The Drug Court team allowed Couch to start over at square one. Once she’d made it through another 28 days of residential treatment and seven months at a halfway house, they released her with their blessing.
“I had a job, a car and a place to live, and I was going to UTC. But I started drinking, and before long, I was using again. At that time, Drug Court had easy drug tests, and I’d gotten smart, so I’d use someone else’s pee or pickle juice to pass my test,” Couch says.
When Couch missed another court date because she was high, Judge Stern issued another warrant for her arrest. However, Couch went to the courthouse on her own, ready to face the consequences. She says that was a pivotal moment in her recovery.
“That was a behavioral change for me. Every other time I’d been in trouble, the bondsmen or the police had to hunt me down. I never showed up for court when I made a bond. I was always the person who bonded out and was gone,” she says.
In response, the Drug Court team sent Couch to treatment in Knoxville, Tenn., since she was unable to stay clean in Chattanooga. Couch returned six months later, clean as a whistle, and has stayed that way for three-and-a-half years.
“Drug court saved my life. I would’ve died, not just from the drugs, but also from the lifestyle. People think Drug Court is an easy way for addicts to escape the consequences of their actions, and have asked me if it’s worth the taxpayer’s money. I always ask them, ‘Was my life worth the money? Absolutely!” she says.
The Drug Court concept started in Miami, Fla., in 1989 and spread from there. In 2002, District Attorney Bill Cox became aware of a drug court grant and alerted Judge Stern, who liked the concept. Kelley was doing trial consulting when Judge Stern interviewed her for the position, which at the time involved no pay.
Kelly trained for the job in New York City and Olympia, Wash., where she visited established drug courts and sat down with their teams to learn about what they did and why they did it. She returned with five thick manuals.
In 2005, the local drug court finally secured funding through Congressman Zack Wamp.
“We’ve got this chunk of change, and I’ve got my manuals, so I say, ‘Let’s open drug court! We’re going to break the cycle of recidivism! We were going to stop the revolving door!’ We didn’t have a clue,” Kelly says.
Kelly and one part-time case manager started Drug Court with two clients. Today, a larger staff handles 42 clients, and just received the funding that will allow them to increase that number by 30 percent during the current fiscal year.
Kelly says working for drug court is tremendously rewarding, and she’s proud of what the program has accomplished. Clients have completed treatment, stayed clean, secured jobs, earned their GED, reconciled with their families and straightened out what had become a crooked path.
However, the road isn’t always easy for the staff, as some clients require more blood, sweat and tears than others, and still fail to complete the program. But Kelly and the others remind themselves that their clients have hard road ahead of them, too, so they stay the course. When a client graduates at the end of the program, Kelly says it’s worth every difficult moment.
“I didn’t always trust Crystal. But I do now. And I didn’t always love her. But I do now,” Kelly says.
Today, Couch can look in the mirror and be proud of the girl who stares back. She’s clean, married, working hard as a program assistant for Drug Court, and has a future as bright as her smile. In a way, the girl in the mug shot did die.
“I’d resigned myself to dying as a junkie, and that was okay,” she says. “I didn’t know how to not be that way. I couldn’t remember what life was like without drugs. Drug Court changed me forever.”