November 26, 2010
Deanna Simmons chokes up as she grabs the microphone in the jury room of the Fourth Judicial District courthouse, but who can blame her? This is her night to graduate from Drug Court, and it represents a huge step in mending the life she shattered with her meth addiction.
“In this room, I had supervised visits with my son,” the 40-year-old woman tells a roomful of other Drug Court participants and their families. “Now, I get to take him home with me.”
The crowd applauds as Simmons returns to her seat and hugs her 12-year-old son and her mother.
It’s another success story for Drug Court, an 11-year-old program for people facing their first-ever felony drug charge. It relies on a team of two psychotherapists, two probation officers, a prosecutor from the District Attorney’s office and Magistrate Lisa Kirkman to assess the offenders’ issues and needs, equip them with a “toolbox” of coping strategies and plug them into services to help them get clean and stay that way.
“We wrap ’em up in services,” Kirkman says.
As of Oct. 19, 624 people had successfully completed the program, representing a graduation rate of about 76 percent. The graduates are rewarded with dismissal of the charge that got them into Drug Court in the first place. If they can stay clean for two years after graduation and undergo aftercare for the first of those two years, they can even get their records sealed.
But the biggest reward goes beyond their status with the legal system. They leave with a sense of accomplishment, higher self-esteem, a much healthier body, a set of coping tools and the prospect of a rosier future, the Drug Court team says.
“It’s changed my life,” says 32-year-old Bonnie Norris, a habitual meth user and mother of an 11-year-old daughter. “My goals are to graduate, stay sober, raise my daughter without drugs, move up in my job and get my GED.” She eventually wants to be a crime scene investigator.
Four “strikes” allowed
For Simmons, Norris and the 120 or so others in the program at any given time, Kirkman’s courtroom is a place of second chances. And third.
And even more.
“We never lose hope in Drug Court,” says Kirkman.
Most participants can finish the program in a year as they pass through three phases that require several commitments: random drug tests, meetings with probation officers, regularly scheduled court appearances and the presentation of a “life plan” after the last phase.
They’re allowed up to four “strikes” — mistakes — in the first two phases, and one in the third.
Even that isn’t hard and fast, however, because the DA can combine strikes “and give more opportunity to people,” Kirkman says.
“I had five strikes in my first three weeks. I wasn’t taking it seriously,” says 25-year-old Chelsea Oubre, who expects to be in the next group of graduates.
“I kept using. I went back to jail.”
Jail is the consequence for the more egregious violations, such as a missed or “hot” urinalysis tests.
Other violations, such as missing a treatment group, might bring a requirement for public service and electronic home monitoring.
“One of the reasons Drug Court works is that consequences for behavior are immediate and swift,” the program material states.
But Kirkman says the strike system isn’t front and center in the program.
“It’s not so focused on strikes as it is on accountability, honesty and success,” she says.
Ironically, Kirkman was once known as “lock ’em up Lisa,” a reference to her success rate as a prosecutor, which included the prosecution of many drug crimes.
She helped launch Drug Court in 1999 and served as prosecutor, then was appointed magistrate.
She left the position for two years to go back to the DA’s Office, but then returned to being magistrate.
“I really like to see people changing their lives; I like to be part of the solution,” says Kirkman, who has four children, including a set of twins.
And so she goes to extraordinary lengths to keep these first-time drug offenders out of lockup, and she does it with a velvet hammer.
Her courtroom is a place where applause breaks out at any piece of good news.
Oubre announces she’s pregnant.
One man says he’s been drug-free for 10 months.
Someone else has come up with productive ways to combat the boredom that would ordinarily have sent him running for a high.
But it’s not just the supportive atmosphere of Kirkman’s courtroom that sets it apart from many others. It’s her approach — part concerned mother, part savvy social worker, part humorist, part cheerleader, part stern but loving teacher — that she uses with each person who steps up for his or her case review.
“Remember: Mistakes are for learning,” she tells one man who messed up and received a “strike.” “What did you learn from your mistake?”
“Don’t hang out with those people no more,” he says with a grin.
“That would be like me hanging out in a bakery,” she responds, drawing a laugh from everyone in the courtroom. “It would be ugly.”
Another man is about to move up into another phase of the program, but Kirkman looks at his charts and notices he has a legal issue to clear up: He was throwing things at cars.
“You’re not going to do that again, are you?” she says. Then she tells him the prosecutor is going to look into having the charge related to the offense dropped, so it won’t affect his status in Drug Court.
“That’s a huge gift,” Kirkman tells him. “Remember: An instant decision can change your whole future.”
Recognizing the individual
The parade of people continues its march in front of Kirkman’s bench, where a sign behind her reads “Justice with Heart.”
She asks about their children, and what character the kids will be for Halloween.
She notices improvements in their physical appearance, and keeps encouraging them, even those who show up in orange jail suits because they’ve failed a drug test or done something else to incur a strike.
She passes along phone numbers of treatment providers, asks family members if they can afford medical expenses, makes a note to follow up on dental care for Bonnie Norris, whose teeth are missing, though not from meth.
Kirkman believes it’s imperative to make sure participants are covered on the basics, including health care.
“Safe housing, food and water — we focus on these three first,” she says.
“Then, when they’re sober, we work on their health. They’re encouraged to see doctors and get their bodies healthy.”
Because many of the people are on the lower end of the economic scale and don’t have health insurance, the Drug Court team works with organizations to address their physical and mental health needs and get them medications.
They work with sobering houses to find people a supportive, drug-free place to live.
They’ve hooked up with an organization that arranges outdoors activities for people trying to stay off drugs and alcohol.
“Just about anything we can think of that will help, we try to plug into,” Kirkman says.
A huge component of the program is the team approach to handling each case.
Kirkman, prosecutor Judy Haller and DA volunteer Leticia Cisneros, therapists Gregory Ortega and Laura Fetters, and probation officers Jennifer Jones and Mike Hernandez meet regularly to discuss each Drug Court participant, what obstacles the person might be facing, and what he or she might need to succeed.
Most team members have been with Drug Court for at least four years, and they operate like a well-oiled machine.
“They have a very strong team that’s cohesive,” says Carrie Thompson, head of the Office of the Colorado State Public Defender office here.
“It’s been enlightening to see how they can work as a team, because that’s a concept that’s not in the regular court system.”
No easy process
Despite the best efforts of the team, about two in 10 people fail the Drug Court program, and they end up with a felony conviction, the result of a plea bargain they entered to get into the program. (Read about long-term studies on drug courts here.)
Team members also know some people will slip up after graduation, although they haven’t extensively tracked anyone long term.
“I think we can all think of a few cases where someone relapsed,” Haller says.
“That’s the reality of addiction,” Kirkman adds.
Still, they hope that the graduates will commit to long-term sobriety, but they know it’s not easy.
People often have to change their circle of friends, their routines, their whole reality.
“It’s brutal,” Haller says.
But those who stick with it — and even some who are getting their first blush of sobriety through Drug Court — start to see the possibilities of a drug-free life.
“There’s a lot of drama, a lot of turmoil, chasing a bag,” says 45-year-old Gary Daily Jr., who used meth for 30 years before cleaning up nine months ago and is moving into the third phase of the program.
“I feel at peace. I still have my moments of life that are not always joyful, but I deal with it in different ways.”
If he graduates, he’ll get to go up to the podium at the next graduation ceremony, as Deanna Simmons and about a dozen other people did one evening last month, and go through the rites of passage.
He’ll hug Kirkman and, perhaps, some of the team members who are sitting off to the side, applauding his accomplishments.
He might say a few words of encouragement to the crowd, as several of the graduates did.
And Kirkman will give him a parting gift: his booking photo.
Call the writer: 636-0194.
ABOUT THE PROGRAM
Drug Court is not a walk-in clinic for just anyone facing a drug charge. There are numerous criteria people must meet to be considered, and they must be referred into the program. Some key elements to getting in, and what’s required:
• The program is for people facing a felony drug-possession charge, with no indication of violence or use of a deadly weapon. Participants cannot have prior felony convictions, and the program does not accept those charged with distribution.
• Participants must be referred to the program through the District Attorney’s office. Participants then go through a screening process with a probation officer and a therapist.
Participants must plead guilty to a felony offense, and will receive a two-year deferred sentence. They then have two years to complete the program, though most finish in a year.
• Participants are required to make regular court appearances and meet with their probation officer, attend therapy groups and undergo random urinalysis. They may be required to get additional mental health treatment. They must have a job, though some can do public service instead. They are required to pay for some of the services, though some surcharges are waived if the person graduates.
• Participants pass through three phases, and are allowed a certain number of “strikes,” which carry consequences that can include jail time. Each phase lasts about 17 weeks. At the end of the last phase, participants submit a “life plan,” and if they’ve met all requirements, the DA will make a motion to dismiss the charge, withdraw the guilty plea and dismiss the case. By meeting additional requirements after graduation, the person’s record can be sealed.
More information: www .gofourth.org/DC5Lhome page.htm.
A second drug court is starting up: www.gazette.com/articles/court-108709-drug-hard.html.