The Telegram - 9/9/2010
Muncipal Court's Drug Court celebrates first graduates from program
Jackson County Municipal Court was in session on Thursday afternoon, August 19, but the proceedings were upbeat and even celebratory rather than somber and punitive.
And with good reason -- triumph, not failure, was the order of the day. Happy and proud Judge Mark Musick was dispensing smiles, congratulations and frosted cake, not jail sentences and stern lectures.
Indeed it was a red-letter day as the staff and participants celebrated the graduation of the first two defendants to complete the Drug Court program. Instead of heading to jail or the fines-payment window, the young man and the woman left the courtroom with a clean legal slate and seemingly a new lease on life. Approximately 10 other Drug Court participants witnessed the graduation and were asked by the judge about their own progress.
"I have nothing but the highest praise for what you've been through," Judge Musick said to the female graduate. Later, he turned to the male graduate and said beaming, "You've got a job, you've got a truck and you've got a girlfriend. What else could a guy want?"
The two graduates -- their full names will not be used in this story -- completed what amounts to a 15-month diversion program that allows qualifying defendants the chance to avoid incarceration and fines in return for attending counseling and treatment for their substance abuse (drug or alcohol) problems.
Judge Musick established a Drug Court program in February 2009. "I looked at our situation in Jackson County and felt what we needed was a Drug Court," he reflected. "Maybe we ought to call it a Pill Court," he added with a laugh, alluding to the increasing use and abuse of prescription drugs in the county.
In short, the objectives are to help society and the system by reducing the rate of repeat offenders and on an individual level, to turn around -- and even save -- lives.
Participants must also complete two weeks of community-service work, faithfully attend weekly court sessions and remain drug and/or alcohol-free and take random tests to confirm it. In addition to the opportunity of receiving professional help to beat their addiction or abuse problem, defendants completing the program can receive a complete removal of the public record of the criminal offense(s) with which they were charged. There is no conviction and the record of the arrest is erased.
Not all defendants are eligible for Drug Court and all those who are eligible may not necessarily be enrolled. Those eligible include offenders charged with drug abuse offenses no higher than a third-degree felony or with theft offenses no higher than a third-degree felony in which the defendant is deemed to be drug-or-alcohol dependent or is in danger of becoming drug- or alcohol-dependent. The defendant also cannot be a "repeat violent offender" and cannot have a history of violent behavior, mental illness or an acute health condition.
County Prosecutor Jonathan Blanton must approve or make the referrals and Judge Musick must approve the referrals. Drug Court could not exist without Blanton's participation and cooperation and he can be counted as a supporter.
"It's a great option to have," Blanton commented when asked for an appraisal. "I'm pleased the judge was able to begin this program. It's a wonderful opportunity to help people because substance abuse can ruin their lives. Drug Court is an opportunity for them to receive treatment and achieve sobriety. I think we're off to a good start."
Fifteen months can be a long haul when you're trying to beat an addiction as well as summon up the discipline and resolve to jump through the necessary hoops day after day and week after week. That's why the final court session for (two) graduates was treated as a celebration.
(With one graduate), it was noted, had never "given a bad test" and had been alcohol- and drug-free for 18 months, had regularly participated in discussion groups and had not committed any illegal behavior.
Judge Musick observed to (one graduate) that he had "been through the mill," but had persevered and successfully completed the program. While serving a total of 53 days in jail, (the graduate) admitted he had a lot of time to think about his situation and consider his future.
"I sat there and thought about it. That's about all you can do in jail," he told Judge Musick. "I decided I don't want to be like that anymore."
In congratulating him, the judge urged (the other graduate) to keep attending outside support groups (Narcotics Anonymous and Alcoholics Anonymous).
"It takes a lot of commitment," Blanton said of the Drug Court program. "It's certainly not for everybody. You've got to be able to change your friends and make good choices."
At Judge Musick's invitation, Jackson Assistant Police Chief Maria Uribe was asked to address the graduates and participants.
Uribe warned the participants that the drug problem has become more like an epidemic and that the general public is not likely to be sympathetic to them and their problems or past problems.
"Society doesn't want anything to do with anybody who has a drug background," Uribe declared. "They don't want to have anything to do with you. They don't want you to work for them. They don't want to you to live in their apartment and they don't want you to babysit for them."
Uribe congratulated the graduates and urged the other participants to complete the program and take advantage of the opportunity to walk out of the court without a criminal record. She warned them to be strong and make good choices.
"You don't have to do anything that steers you in a wrong direction," she advised. "Everything you do, you have a choice. You are very lucky you can leave here with a clean slate."
Prior to the graduates being in the spotlight, Judge Musick called each drug court participant to the front of the courtroom for a brief status conference. His mood with them was decidedly encouraging and upbeat. The judge, in fact, described Drug Court as his "favorite part of the week."
Based on the judge's comments made during this session, it appears most of the participants are succeeding and are on a path to graduation.
When one of the young men said he was working 38 hours a week and that his life was "boring," the judge replied, "Boring is our favorite word" and congratulated him for being drug-free since December 28. Another young man said he had been compliant for six months and volunteered, "Life, in general, is better when you don't have to depend on something." The judge told a third young man who was doing well, "I have nothing but compliments for your conduct."
Judge Musick also showed concern for a couple of the participants. To one young man, he said, "I have reports that you're hanging out with that person or that person...What will destroy you is your choice of associations. But you're doing everything we've asked you to do."
When another young man admitted he had not been 100-percent compliant and was dealing with stressful issues, Judge Musick replied, "We do not want to lose you to criminal conduct."
Judge Musick also allowed the media to attend one of the weekly sessions in which participating bailiffs and substance abuse counselors provide updates on how drug court participants are progressing. Professionals participating in the August 19 meeting were Judge Musick, Deputy Bailiff Derek Cales, Spectrum Counselor Lori Sturgill, TASC Case Manager Sarah Malone and Jackson Assistant Police Chief Uribe.
The key word was "compliant" as Musick went down the list of Drug Court participants and asked if each were attending group sessions, passing drug tests and generally staying out of trouble. On the front end, the participants had already received treatment for their addiction and were in the stage of transitioning from an alcohol/drug user who was accused of breaking the law to a productive citizen who was successfully dealing with their problems. The judge estimates that to this point, about 75 percent of those enrolled have been able to stay with the program.
Musick feels that once participants have successfully been treated for their substance abuse problem and have achieved sobriety, the big hurdle then becomes with whom they associate. "With the criminal element, friends can be powerful and they must be able to change their friends," the judge stated. This same peer pressure is often the same force that compels some offenders not to participate in Drug Court.
While Musick is proud of what has happened so far with Drug Court, he also knows the proverbial jury is still out and that time will be the ultimate judge.
"Our measure of success," the judge said, "is whether our graduates have to return here."
The local Drug Court got a big financial boost recently when U.S. Senator Sherrod Brown announced the court would receive a $350,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Justice's Discretionary Grant Program.
Judge Musick says the grant should assure the continuation of his Drug Court for the next three years. He noted his local budget has been cut the past several years and without the federal money, he was not certain whether he could have maintained enough staff to conduct the program, which he says is labor intensive because of the extra attention that must be paid to the participants.
Based on what happened on August 19, Judge Musick is happy about the chance to continue Drug Court.