The Journal Gazette
Sunday, May 02, 2021 1:00 am

Accountability of Drug Court a lifesaver

Frances C. Gull

They are often integral threads in the fabric of our community: physicians, nurses, attorneys, teachers, pharmacists, businesspeople and others we depend upon every day. They are everyday people, just like us, but for one painful difference.

Each of these people has experienced the devastating effects of substance abuse and addiction. They have gotten into trouble with the law and found themselves in an Allen Superior courtroom. Their stories are familiar, but not as predictable as you might think.

This month, an amazing moment will occur in Superior Court. For the thousandth time, a willing woman or man will earn a chance to change their story. He or she will earn a fresh start and the opportunity to rebuild a life, career or family through Allen Superior Court's Drug Court program.

Since 1997, when Judge Kenneth Scheibenberger founded Drug Court, more than 980 people have graduated from our program. Our 1,000th graduate will cross the stage at the program's 50th graduation ceremony on May 17. Many of our graduates have returned to successful lives and professions.

Those who have never needed it might never have heard of Drug Court. For them, an introduction is in order, because addiction crosses all socioeconomic lines. It cares nothing about whom you know or what you have. Addiction is random. It is relentless.

Drug Court clients come to the program after being charged with a variety of offenses related to drugs, alcohol or other illegal substances. At their initial hearing, defendants are evaluated for referral into the program.

There is no “typical” offender who lands in Drug Court. Some are repeat offenders who have turned down Drug Court before. Then, one day, the realization hits that they want help and that their life might just depend on it.

Drug Court's goal is to reduce recidivism and break the all-too-common link between substance abuse and crime by providing offenders with access to specialized prevention and treatment services. That support is combined with the structure, authority and accountability of the court.

In other words, Drug Court clients regularly stand before a judge to report on their successes, accomplishments and hopes. Just as importantly, they have to explain their setbacks, positive drug screens and failures to follow the plan laid out by case managers and treatment providers.

When Superior Court's Drug Court program launched, it was the first problem-solving court in Allen County and the third in the state. Today, there are seven problem-solving courts in Allen County, 127 in Indiana and nearly 4,000 across the United States.

I have had the privilege of supervising the Drug Court program since 2002. Today, Drug Court has between 150 and 170 active clients. While we will celebrate Drug Court's 1,000th graduate in May, the program has touched tens of thousands of lives in our community.

The return on investment is enormous and beyond numbers. A drug-free baby, a life saved that otherwise might have ended in overdose, a family reunified after years of despair and distrust are hard to place a value on, but all are undoubtedly priceless.

The program promotes recovery and lasting change through a team-based response among the court, prosecutors, defense attorneys, treatment providers and a host of other community assets. At the same time we battle an epidemic of addiction, Allen County is blessed with a full treasure chest of advocates working to win that war.

Drug Court clients regularly meet with a case manager. They undergo random drug and alcohol testing. Clients attend 12-step meetings, go to in-house Drug Court support group meetings and substance abuse treatment. Putting the pieces of productive lives together again sometimes requires helping clients with parenting or high school equivalency classes and anger management. Our clients might even need in-patient recovery services.

Incarceration is rarely where recovery happens. However, an appearance in front of a judge can certainly help. A regular trip back to the courtroom is one of the intangibles that makes the program work.

For many Drug Court clients, the support of a judge, case manager or treatment provider is the first positive reinforcement they have gotten in years – or ever. They have never been encouraged, congratulated or told “Good job!” by someone in authority. They work hard not to embarrass themselves or the judge who has invested in their path to a second chance. On more than one graduation day, a Drug Court client has said, “Thank you for yelling at me.”

Whether the words they hear from me are “Congratulations!” or “You can do better,” that personal connection between judge and client is fuel for their ultimate success.

Our clients know that we care about them as people. They are not just a defendant, a case number or someone's client. They are someone's son or daughter, mother or father, spouse or friend.

Our staff are invested deeply in our clients and in the Drug Court program. Jeff Yoder, one of the very first Drug Court case managers, is now director of the Allen County program. Albert Woodberry, one of Jeff's earliest cases, is now a men's Drug Court support group facilitator. Among the current Drug Court staff are a combined 59 years of experience enabling recovery.

Make no mistake. Drug Court clients are required to invest in their own recovery. At least 75% of the program's cost is borne by user fees, not tax dollars. Clients pay a $100 initial fee, $50 a month after that and they pay for their own drug screens. Second chances are worth every cent.

Nationally, studies have demonstrated that there is a return to the community of between $3,000 and $22,000 for every Drug Court client who does not reoffend. Based on our program's recidivism rate of 22%, Allen County Drug Court saves the local community up to $583,000 per year in money not spent on incarceration, policing costs and other related community resources.

Over time, about half of those who enroll in the Drug Court program go on to graduate. They earn incentives along the way as they reach various milestones. At the end of the program, graduates can also be eligible to have their cases dismissed or charges reduced.

Allen County's Drug Court program is a national example of excellence and a powerful statement about our community's compassion and belief in redemption. When other Drug Court programs start around the country, they visit Allen County to find out how to do it right. In 2017, we were invited to present on the Allen County program to the Indiana Justice Services Annual Training Conference.

The upcoming 50th Drug Court graduation is more than a number. It is a milestone measured in the impact it has had on clients and the untold numbers of people their lives have touched. A few years ago, Jeff Yoder purchased coffee mugs for the Drug Court staff that carry the hashtag #Lifechanger. That is what Drug Court is all about.

Clients, staff and even the presiding judge come to the program to rally behind one ideal: No matter your background, the job you hold or where you live, we all mean something. Our lives are worth working for, investing in and fighting for.

That is what we do in Drug Court. 

Allen Superior Court Judge Frances C. Gull oversees the county's Drug Court.

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