Inside the lives of ‘Drug Court’ participants

Sarah Wibell Featured, News

The Morgan County Citizen presents a four-part series on drug courts. These specific accountability treatment courts offer alternative means of addressing addiction and mental illness instead of sentencing offenders to prison. This is the third installment of that series.

“I have seen individuals give up their freedom, children, families for a drug, which to me is just mind-blowing how that can happen. But, for some people, the addiction is that great.” said Judge Amanda Petty, Ocmulgee Circuit of the 8th Superior Court District of Georgia

“Addiction goes on forever, but you can be sober forever, too, if you want to. It is hard. People act like it just happens: you go to meetings – it’s no big deal; you act like you’re supposed to and decide not to do it. It’s a little more complicated than that. You have to learn what works for you, and I think (the ATCC) taught you all some stuff that helped.” – Vivian Hartman, ATCC July 2018 commencement speaker

“I’d rather die than have my babies go through what I’ve been through.” said ATCC Graduate Clinton Jones

“Our goal is to take someone who, when they initially come into the program, has been destructive to themselves, perhaps to their family and friends or the community, and give them the tools and opportunity to transform themselves and their lives into being productive members of their families and communities,” said ATCC Superior Court Judge Alison Burleson.

The Ocmulgee Circuit Adult Treatment Court Collaborative (ATCC) is a drug court program serving Morgan, Greene, Jasper, Putnam, Baldwin, Hancock, Jones, and Wilkinson counties to treat a specific demographic of non-violent drug-related offenders within their own communities instead of sending them to prison.

The ATCC is an 18-24-month voluntary program with four phases, each with specific requirements, that participants must successfully complete. This includes random drug screening, complying with treatment recommendations and probation requirements, weekly meetings with case managers, attending two or more court sessions a month, adhering to a curfew, having a sponsor, and going to community support meetings like Alcoholics Anonymous. Additionally, participants must gain sustainable employment – i.e. work that takes out taxes – and, if they do not have either a General Education Development (GED) or a high school diploma, they are required to earn at least a GED diploma. There is also a $1K fee that has to be paid before graduating from the ATCC.

“What I’ve come to learn is that what you see in the beginning (of the ATCC program) usually is a hot mess, and it’s just the craziest set of circumstances,” ATCC Superior Court Judge Amanda Petty explained at a commencement ceremony. “We (judges) can’t make up the stories that happen to our drug court participants; it’s just unbelievable what they go through to get here. But as they reach their sobriety and as they progress to get to this point, you really see who they were born to be, what their natural gifts and graces are, and how they express these to the other participants in the program.”

ATCC Superior Court Judge Brenda Trammell recalled one participant: “I think he turned 60 when he was in the program and had been a life-long alcoholic. The first time I ever met him, he was supposed to come to court, and when I mentioned his name (…he was not in attendance and someone said,) ‘He’s not here, but we know where we can find him.’ So, they go find him on the street, and he is drunk. They had to put him in the downstairs visiting judges’ office in the courthouse until he was sober enough to even let him come upstairs. When he came up there … my suggestion was, ‘Why don’t we try him in the drug court program?’

“Everybody looked at me and said, ‘Judge, you have lost your mind,’ because they all knew him. Many of these people are not one-hit wonders. These are people who have been in the criminal justice system forever; they’re well-known. But he came into the program despite others’ thoughts that I had lost my mind.

“He graduated in April.”

Judge Petty noted, “We see people in court for drug offenses over and over and over again, and sometimes it can be easy to forget that they each have their own individual stories. I think drug court helps me not to be complacent with what I see in the courtroom on a day-to-day basis, because I am so familiar with the individuals who are participating in my program. They’re all very different and all have very different backgrounds. You learn to appreciate the fact that they all have a story; they’re not just bad people.”

Petty subsequently talked about a participant who is currently on track to graduate in December: “This gentleman, when he entered the program, was homeless, jobless, an addict, lived in a tent, fished for his food, and walked everywhere that he needed to get to. He is so determined to change his life. He has done everything that we have asked of him. … Now, he has a full-time job, a roof over his head, a vehicle, and is about to graduate our program. … He really is an inspiration.”

ATCC graduate Kristina Rush shared some of her experience during her commencement, “My life before drug court was a mess. I didn’t care about anyone or anything except getting high. … I would leave my kids with my mom for days at a time and not even answer my phone to know if something was wrong with them. Not one person, not even myself, knew that I could do this program. We all believed that I’d be good for a few months, and then run away like I always did in the past. I thought this was the easiest thing I could do, and I sure was wrong about that.”

“I started out using drugs when I was 15,” Clinton “Clint” Jones, another ATCC graduate, recalled.

After initially being introduced to marijuana, Jones eventually began using alcohol, pills, cocaine, and methamphetamine.

Jones continued, “I was at a very young age, so I didn’t have a whole lot of money, … but I would do it here and there. I’m not saying I managed anything, because my life’s been unmanageable for a long time, but I was able to still work. I’m going to fast forward through a few years and several arrests later for DUIs (driving under the influence), probation violations, and underage drinking. When I was put on probation, they told me what I had to do and made everything very clear; I disregarded that. I had no regard. I wanted to do what I wanted to do, and I wanted to do it right then. I didn’t care about the consequences.”

After a difficult time in his life, Jones used methamphetamines more heavily and became dependent on methadone. Eventually, he reached a point in his life where he prayed to God to remove him from his situation.

“And He did. He took me out of that place and found somewhere else for me – it’s called jail,” Jones stated. “I’m sitting in jail, and I’m like, ‘Really, God? Really?’ But it’s exactly what He was doing to answer my prayers, because there was no way I would’ve stopped. I don’t know where I’d be today. I don’t know if I’d be alive. … I got into drug court five and a half months later. I’d heard it was rough, but I didn’t care. I wanted to get out of jail. ‘Whatever, let me out,’ was all I was thinking. I’m (in court and) literally not even paying attention to what Judge Petty is saying to me about how difficult this program is and what I need to do to accomplish this and complete it. I just wanted out.”

Judge Burleson pointed out, “This is a hard program. It is. There’s just no way around it. We have some folks who come in and they’re ready: they plunge right in and do what they’re supposed to do, don’t have a lot of sanctions, and they just commit to the program. Then we have some people who take a more winding path to get to the end of the struggle. But, in either eventuality, they get to graduation. Everybody’s journey in this program is different. I think what’s important and what matters is that they get there, however they get there.”

During the graduation ceremony, Rush was recognized by the judges as being someone who helped other participants. She went “above and beyond” to make sure some of them had rides to their drug screenings even when she wasn’t being screened.

“She has a very genuine love for the participants and wants to see everyone succeed. We’ve really seen that blossom in her so much,” Judge Petty stated. “She has gone on to receive her Peer Support Specialist Certificate, and she is now working on her certification as an addiction counselor. … Her gifts and graces are giving back and helping others. She truly has been a blessing, and we’re really proud of her.”

“This program was so worth it,” Rush asserted. “It saved my life. I learned what really matters in life. I learned how to be honest. I learned how to care for others again. … My kids actually like being around me now. I have my family back. I do things with my kids now and really enjoy life.”

The judges, members of law enforcement, and program coordinator all agree that the main challenge for participants in the ATCC tends to be the adjustment to the structure. With the majority of participants’ time being managed by the ATCC, a number of participants initially struggle with the many requirements. However, Judge Petty remarked that when they stop fighting the program and do what is asked “it really clicks for them” and “things just start falling into place.”

Jones, who said he was “in Phase I (of the program) forever,” noted that he had to submit to the program and admit he had a problem before real change could occur. “I know there are times when it feels like – particularly if you’re getting sanctioned – the judges are against you. From my experience, that’s not true. These ladies’ hearts are really in this program, and that’s something that’s really helped me. I’d never ever get any praise if I wasn’t doing right, but when I did start doing right, and they did start noticing and let me know, that was a powerful thing for me.”

Judge Burleson shared that once Jones committed himself to the program, he got a job. He excelled on an aptitude test and has since earned a promotion.

“The most remarkable change that I’ve seen,” Burleson remarked at his commencement ceremony, “is what Mr. Jones has done in the sobriety community, not just here in drug court, but in Morgan County and beyond.”

Judge Petty added, “Mr. Jones has truly been a leader. That is what his natural born skill is, and it’s very evident when he talks at our support group sessions and how the other participants look to him. They just naturally kind of rally behind him, and he is very thoughtful in his comments to other people. As Judge Burleson said, he leads our participants in the AA group that (meets) before our court sessions. It is awesome that we have one of our own participants doing that and able to give back. But that’s just one of many things that he does. He truly is a leader. I expect that we will continue to see great things out of Mr. Jones.”

Judge Trammell asserted in an interview, “It is absolutely impossible to be the kind of productive individual that we’re talking about without getting off of drugs and alcohol. So there becomes a first step that adds to this. We tell the participants, ‘We’ve got your time. You’re going to be in class and do whatever is necessary for you to get out of the mindset that this is an acceptable place for you to be. What you’re going to be is a responsible income producer who is able to support who you need to.’

“We’ve had tons of people who have been reunited with children and family. If you know anything about addiction, you know that it is very difficult on a family. It’s just the nature of the beast. Yet, we’ve seen a lot of restoration, because people begin to see that change, and then are willing to give somebody another chance. That’s what we try to help.”

Speaking of Jones, Petty recalled, “One of the most special moments that he’s had while he and I have been together in court was when he was able to go to the daddy-daughter dance. Now that doesn’t necessarily sound like a milestone, but when that has been taken from you, and you have been prevented from doing that because of the choices you’ve made in your life, to be able to earn that back and see the smile not only on his face but on his daughter’s face and they’re all dressed up and going to the dance…,” Petty paused, “… you can never get back those moments that you miss. He’s worked very hard to put those moments back not only in his life but also in his family’s life.”

Next issue: drug courts’ impact on rates of recidivism and cost benefits.

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