Drug court saves offenders and taxpayer dollars

Monday, July 5, 2010 at 11:45pm
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Brandy Frazier weighed 96 pounds at the time of her last arrest.

She started shooting heroin — the first drug she ever tried — at age 15, and she spent the next 15 years putting needles in her arms.

She’d been in and out of jail a few times, receiving probation but not giving up her habit of using intravenous drugs. Last year, while in Generals Sessions Court, she was offered Treatment Court, a voluntary program for repeat nonviolent drug offenders meant to reduce the recidivism rate and increase the recovery rate.

Frazier took the offer — but for the wrong reasons.

“I wasn’t ready to stop using at all. I was pretty much looking for a way to get outside and get high again,” she said.

She eventually made it far enough through the program to land in a halfway house. But there she found a fix, got high and began the cycle anew. She ran out on the program and spent about seven months on the outside, living in a crack house, shooting up what she could get her hands on.

The law caught up to her again. After her last arrest, Scott Ross, manager of the program better known as Drug Court, offered her a second chance. But she would have to detoxify in jail and pass treatment there.

“I knew I was going to have to sit for a while,” she said. “I needed to sit still, and I needed to get clean.

“The thing about Drug Court is if you’re doing what you’re supposed to do, it’s the best thing that can happen to you,” said Frazier, now 31. “But if you’re trying to just get out of jail and you don’t want to stay clean, you’re going to end up right back where you were.”

After General Sessions Court Judge Casey Moreland tired of seeing the same nonviolent drug addicts pass through his courtroom, he sought a way to stop the “revolving door” and curtail the costs of not only the crimes committed by the drug offenders, but also the costs to Metro — of the repeated arrests and housing in jail.

Following a trend

In the mid 1990s, drug courts had popped up across the country. A federal grant from the Department of Justice allowed Moreland and his Drug Court team to study other programs, and in 2003, Moreland established Drug Court.

“We save the taxpayers almost $1.8 million a year just in housing-of-inmate costs,” Moreland said.

Drug Court is a three-phase program presided over by Moreland, managed by Ross and facilitated with the cooperation of the Davidson County Sheriff’s Office, the Metro Nashville Police Department, the District Attorney’s Office, the Public Defender’s Office, and social workers.

It’s up to prosecutors to decide who is eligible, with Ross accepting who he thinks is right for the program. Then, at a newcomer’s first Drug Court docket, Moreland asks the person two questions: “Do you want to be in Drug Court?” and “What are the two rules of Drug Court?”

The answer to the latter: “Be honest” and “Stay clean,” in that order. Those who answer correctly move into the program.

The first phase lasts a minimum of six months. Participants go to court every week and are tested for drugs a minimum of three times a week; random tests also occur. Participants have to stay sober for six months before they can progress out of the first phase.

Every week during this period, participants go through four days of intensive outpatient treatment, to court every Wednesday, and three group meetings.

The second phase eases in intensity a little. Participants go to court every other week and the drug tests aren’t as frequent, but they’re still done on a random basis. The outpatient treatment is reduced to twice a week, but frequency of group meetings is increased.

Phase three takes a minimum of two or three months, with monthly court appearances and less frequent drug tests. In this final phase, participants must attend a “Back to Basics” class, an intensive refresher on all they learned in the program. By this stage many have submitted a plan for moving back into the community at large while avoiding past pitfalls.

Those who succeed through all phases, including a daylong service project, are recommended for graduation, usually an emotional ceremony.

“I have not had a graduation that I didn’t have to turn away and wipe a tear away or something like that,” Moreland said.
Week in, week out

Emotions also run high every Wednesday at 2 p.m., when Moreland presides over the Drug Court docket. Here, participants face the judge and a panel of staff members who oversee their treatment and progress. The docket immediately follows a panel meeting reserved for a case-by-case review of the participants.

Moreland foregoes the robe and bench for a seat at a small table in the middle of the courtroom, where he’s flanked by two tables of staffers. One by one, the judge opens a red folder, reads a name and listens for the report.

Staffers talk of participants’ progress, working out who should advance to the next phase, who should get a second chance, or who should return to jail based on behavioral problems, such as being in a relationship with someone else in recovery or just not being honest.

Dana Smith, 33, graduated from Drug Court in 2008, following a relapse into drugs prompted by the death of her 3-year-old son.

Now, after studying social work at Trevecca Nazarene University, Smith sits on the Drug Court panel, mixing her schooling with her own experiences to spot red-flag behavioral issues.

“I’ve been there, so I’ve done most of the things that they lie about,” Smith said. “Sometimes I can spot things, maybe, where someone who is trained in social work but maybe who has never been a thief or a liar or a good con man might not pick up on it as much.”

Following the panel meeting, the participants enter the courtroom to face the judge, usually one at a time. Nerves can run high. One man, standing stiff three feet in front of the seated Moreland, didn’t breathe.

“Take deep breaths,” Ross reminded him.

Moreland told the man, so worried about doing the right thing in Drug Court, that he is progressing fine.

One woman proudly asked if she could show Moreland the GED she recently earned, while another brought her new baby, born drug-free.

As five participants were promoted to phase three, Moreland sent another woman to jail, calling her a “drain on society” because of behavioral problems.

‘Gift from God’

Ross said his team could tell, usually within the first 30 days, how serious a participant is.

“Most of our runners run in the first 30 days,” Moreland said.

Lyndsey Mercer, 24, ran from Drug Court after a month in a halfway house.

Mercer had been addicted to pain pills for five years and shot heroin for eight months. She survived six overdoses and went to rehab five times, passing in and out of jail in between.

“My sister was murdered over drugs, and you would think that I would’ve learned from that, but I didn’t. I’m very stubborn. I had to learn things the hard way.”

“If you’re going to do it, you have to do it for yourself. You’ve got to hit rock bottom before it’ll work,” Mercer said.

After running the first time, she turned herself in, this time knowing she needed Drug Court.

“After my sister was killed, my mom couldn’t take losing another daughter,” Mercer said, tears pooling in her eyes. “I’ve always been hard-headed, and I’ve got to figure things out the hard way. But I have no doubt in my mind that I’d be dead or in jail right now if it weren’t for Drug Court.”

Now, as a Drug Court graduate approaching two years of sobriety, Mercer returns weekly to help the program.

“Drug Court is a gift from God, but at the same time you’ve got to want it.”

1 Comment on this post:

By: bringingbackcom... on 7/6/10 at 4:33

" I tip my hat to all of the people who can admit that they have some fault, because we all do. I have had my ups and downs, but I have always wanted to do right.!"

" It is a fact that God is always calling on us to listen for and to hear his voice and somehow through everyday distractions we are deaf and cannot grasp that whisper that is in our heart, ears, and mind.!"

" I am not trying to push religion on anyone even though I would want to. I will say to all of these people who have struggled with drugs that "I Love You" , and tommorow when you wake up ask God for his grace to walk with you, and repeat that every day when you wake up.!"