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‘Real tough love’ Drug Court tries to reach the root of abuse

By RAELYNN RICARTE

News staff writer

June 7, 2006

Hood River County District Attorney John Sewell and Defense Attorney Jack Morris have abandoned their adversarial roles to join the drug court team.

Although Sewell has the final say about who qualifies for the special program, Morris has equal voice about options of blending treatment with judicial oversight.

“I’m probably not as aggressive with sanctions in this forum as I am in other areas of my job,” said Sewell. “This is definitely a change of pace for me; it’s a completely different approach to these types of cases.”

Morris said that the rehabilitative concept of drug court is very similar to the role he already plays in court. His job representing a client is to seek treatment over punishment.

“Out of all the players in the system, this is more like what we normally do,” he said. “We have always maintained that locking someone up in jail again and again is just a complete waste of everybody’s time.”

Also sitting at the decision-making table is: Judge Paul Crowley; Probation Officer Susie Strom-Peebles; Donita Huskey-Wilson, director of the Community Justice Department; Pamela Newman, drug court coordinator; Fernando Figueroa and Kathy Prouty, representing the Department of Human Services; Chuck Wall, trial court administrator; Pepe Quintanilla and Angela Brooks, from the Mid-Columbia Center for Living; and Martha Yanez, court interpreter.

The local drug court was founded last August after the professionals crafted a framework of protocols that are strictly enforced.

“The driving principal behind it is recognizing that the root of most criminal activity is drug or alcohol abuse. And one of the best ways to protect the community is to deal with the root of the problem,” said Crowley.

But underneath the pragmatism among the team is another driving emotion: hope. Each and every one of the court governors want the subjects who come before them to succeed.

“You can start over every day and I believe that so much,” said Strom. “I tell them not to give up on themselves because we’re not.”

She and every other member of the court team feel a sense of defeat when anyone washes out of the program. They believe that for many of the habitual offenders who come before them, this could be the last chance for change. If someone with a serious addiction can’t make it with numerous “parental” figures guiding his/her daily activities, it probably isn’t going to happen at all.

“Almost everyone who goes through a drug court will wind up in jail before they get done — but we don’t give up hope on them,” said Crowley.

He said the concept of drug court is fairly new but the methodology behind it is pragmatic. By investing resources into a program that rehabilitates addicts, the community is saved from further drug-related crimes. And taxpayer dollars no longer need to be spent on repeat jail and court costs.

However, Crowley said the time donated by the drug court team begins to make it a personal investment as well.

“Everyone on the team develops a relationship with the people they are working with because they are working at such an intensive level,” he said.

At the start of the program, all participants undergo an initial evaluation by Center for Living to decide on their necessary level of treatment.

Sewell has already determined the drug court clients, all of whom have one or more prior criminal convictions, pose no threat to society if not jailed. He tries to select people whose addiction level is not so severe that it will make rehabilitation unlikely. He is also looking for individuals who have a good attitude about treatment.

“We aren’t going to be giving them any breaks, this is a real ‘tough love’ approach,” said Newman.

For the first eight weeks, the client is required to make a personal visit every day to either Newman or Strom-Peebles to report on his/her activities. That person has also agreed to submit to a random drug test at least once a week.

The life of an individual in recovery is primarily focused on treatment during this time period. The person must be in a group session two times each week and possibly meet once with an individual counselor as well. In addition, attendance at three community-based sobriety support groups is mandatory each week.

And then there is the Thursday appearance in court at 8:45 a.m. For 45 minutes before that session, the drug court team meets to discuss any new developments in a case and decide on any necessary sanctions.

After 30 days of staying clean and sober, the participant transitions into the second phase of rehabilitation. During the next six months, he/she will develop a personal recovery plan for meeting social, recreational, housing and educational/vocational needs.

Attendance at group counseling can drop to once each week if a sponsor or mentor is found to provide support. Random drug testing is extended to once every other week but five self-help group sessions are now required unless the drug court team determines otherwise.

The court client must start looking for work and report in with Strom-Peebles or Newman two or three times each week on job-seeking activities and any lifestyle changes.

Court attendance drops to every other week for the first three months and then monthly for the balance of six months.

The final phase of rehabilitation begins after 90 days of continuous abstinence from substance abuse. By this time the individual is ready to draft a Lapse Prevention Plan that describes personal, internal, and external triggers – and sets up strategies to deal with these challenges.

Attendance in group or individual counseling sessions is reduced to once per week. Random drug tests continue once every other week and five support group sessions must still be attended.

Each month the participant must still meet with the drug court team to ensure he/she is staying on track.

After 90 more days of sobriety, the participant is ready for graduation. By that time he/she is working and has developed a support system of other people who are freed from drug or alcohol addiction. The client must be living in a safe and stable environment and making good decisions in everyday activities.

“If we are successful at getting people to the point where they can become productive members of the community then all of the work will be worthwhile,” said Sewell.

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