By Terence R. Perkins
A courtroom is not a place where you expect to find scenes of celebration and tears of joy. Unless, of course, it’s drug court.
Take the story of a young woman whom we’ll call Penny. After struggling with drug addiction and alienating her family and friends a few years ago, Penny lost her job and became homeless. She resorted to stealing to support her addiction. She was arrested numerous times, but nothing changed. She was facing a long jail sentence when she was offered one last chance by entering and successfully completing Flagler County’s drug court program.
In treatment court, she met regularly with the drug court coordinator and received intensive treatment and counseling from specialists right here in our community. With the help of our specifically trained drug court team, including doctors, psychologists and community based treatment providers, she began to put her life back together. She regained her confidence and reconnected with her friends and family. While in the program, we helped her get her GED and then enroll in college. She found part-time work, then a full time job and then a career. She completed the treatment court program and rediscovered that she is a warm and caring person when not burdened by drugs. Next year, she will graduate from college.
Today, she has no criminal record holding her back. (Drug court graduates generally see the charges against them dropped.) She is drug free, happy, healthy, employed and contributing to our community. This is just one of the thousands of individual stories that demonstrate why treatment courts are so critical in the effort to address addiction and related crime.
This May, our Drug Court in Flagler County and drug courts throughout Florida joined more than 3,000 such programs nationwide in celebrating National Drug Court Month. This year alone, more than 150,000 individuals nationwide who entered the justice system due to addiction will receive lifesaving treatment and the chance to repair their lives, reconnect with their families and find long-term recovery. National Drug Court Month is a celebration of the lives restored by drug court. It sends the powerful message that innovative and individualized programs like this can be a more effective and efficient alternative to traditional criminal punishment.
Nearly 30 years ago, the first drug court opened its doors with a simple premise: Rather than continue to allow individuals with long histories of addiction and crime to cycle through the justice system at great expense to the public, use the leverage of the court to keep them engaged in treatment long enough to be successful. Today, drug courts and other treatment courts have proven that a combination of accountability and compassion saves lives while also saving valuable resources and reducing exorbitant criminal justice costs.
Flagler County started its Drug Court program in December 2006. Since then approximately 175 participants have completed the programs and reclaimed their lives. Seven more graduated this month, bringing the total graduates to 20 in the past 12 months–the highest total in the circuit.
But drug court is anything but soft on crime or on those who break the law. Drug court participants are required to complete the most rigorous program in our criminal justice system, integrating intense treatment and counseling with the highest and most concentrated level of community based supervision. While participants navigate their way through this demanding program, they must maintaining sobriety, employment and accountability. They are routinely drug tested, they help pay for their treatment, and they perform hundreds of hours of community service.
Only 59 percent of participants will complete the program. But when they do, most, like Penny, are not only drug and alcohol free but better educated, possessing a driver’s license, and committed to remain law-abiding. Drug Court graduates are monitored by the court system for two years. In that time, more than 88 percent of Flagler graduates do not commit another felony.
Numerous studies have concluded that treatment courts reduce crime and drug use and save money. Just as importantly, treatment courts also improve the education, employment, housing, and financial stability of the participants. That’s good news for them and for our community. Please join me in celebrating National Drug Court Month and all of those involved in this common sense solution making our community a better and safer place.
Circuit Judge Terence Perkins, a former Chief Judge in the Seventh Judicial Circuit, is completing his first year on Flagler County’s felony and civil bench. He presides over drug court every Thursday morning.