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Drug rehab program

 Program forces offenders to choose sobriety

Sept. 2, 2003 Angela Smith would take on any challenge to stay out of jail.

After Greenwood police found a marijuana pipe in her purse in January 2001 and she later violated probation, Smith spent 22 days in jail.

"I was really miserable in jail. I mean, I probably spent 12 hours a day crying in jail," the 28-year-old Indianapolis woman said.

But Smith was offered a choice that could keep her out of jail while putting her on the road to kicking substance abuse. She opted to try the strict, regimented Drug Rehab program of Greenwood's Recovery Court.

Many women Smith was incarcerated with told her no one makes it through the Recovery Court Drug Rehab program, she said.

"But these people didn't make it, so that was their opinion of it," Smith said.

Smith persevered, and on Aug. 26, she graduated from the Drug Rehab program.

Smith is not alone. According to Judge Lewis Gregory, who presides over Recovery Court, 130 adults have stayed out of jail during the past 3 years, saving taxpayers $1.3 million in what it would have cost to house them in the Johnson County jail.

Enrolling in Recovery Court is a way for adults who are arrested for a drug- or alcohol-related offense to avoid jail time and get treatment for long-term substance abuse problems.

A new approach

Elected judge of Greenwood City Court in 1995, Gregory started the court's first probation program when he took office in 1996. Criminal defendants sentenced to probation had to undergo drug testing, about 400 people at the time.

When the judge saw the first round of drug-test results for probationers, 70 percent tested positive for drug use, meaning they could be sentenced to jail for violating probation. But at the time, the Johnson County jail was facing severe overcrowding, meaning Gregory couldn't throw another 280 people in jail.

"Either I do something or (the probationers) know that there's no teeth in (the drug testing)," he said.

That motivated Gregory to look at other alternatives. He decided to start a program within the city court that would change the behavior of defendants with substance abuse problems but keep them out of jail.

The new concept, funded in part with seed money from a federal grant, was unveiled in 1999 as Greenwood Recovery Court.

Many court systems across the country, including Marion County, have implemented drug courts specifically to deal with substance abusers. Court-ordered Drug treatment, counseling and tough probation conditions often are components of such rehab programs.

Gregory made the decision early on that, unlike 98 percent of drug courts, Greenwood's Recovery Court would include people repeatedly arrested on alcohol-related offenses as part of the drug rehab program.

Politically, the most expedient thing to do with a drunken driver is to put him or her in jail.

"No one has ever criticized a judge for putting somebody in jail," he said.

But incarcerating a person punishes the behavior and doesn't do anything for the drinking problem, Gregory said.

Alcoholism is a severe drug addiction that manifests itself chemically and psychiatrically, he said, and alcohol is readily available.

"You can give me five minutes and $20, and I can come back here with a bottle of whiskey," Gregory said. "If you go into Meijer, you can see whiskey, but you are probably not going to see crack."

Harder than it looks

Recovery Court isn't for every substance-abuse offender. It's intended for adults in and around Johnson County who have been convicted of drug- or alcohol-related crimes and who have had at least two drug addiction-related contacts with police within the past five years.

Potential participants in Recovery Court have often violated probation by using drugs or alcohol. They must admit that they have a problem with substance abuse, Gregory said.

Although Recovery Court might look like an attractive way to avoid jail time, completing the program isn't easy. Recovery Court is so intense and strict that potential participants often opt to serve jail sentences instead.

Smith started Recovery Court on Sept. 17and was required to go to an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting that night.

As part of the Recovery Court, participants are required to:

Complete state-certified treatment programs or intensive outpatient treatment;

Attend self-help groups, such as Alcoholics Anonymous;

Report progress weekly to the court;

Work 40 hours a week or maintain full-time student status; and

Keep their finances and other court-related documents in order to show their probation officer or other court-appointed official.

They also must stay on a budget and be on time for all court-related appointments and programs. If they don't already have a high school diploma, they must work on a GED diploma, Gregory said.

To ensure participants are following the rules, Recovery Court staff members randomly show up at their homes to check for signs of drug or alcohol use, he said. Participants cannot live with anyone who uses alcohol or drugs and are not allowed to visit bars or places where alcohol or drugs are used, he said.

Once assigned to Recovery Court, participants must successfully complete each stage of the drug rehab program, designated as six color-coded levels, from red to green. With each level they complete, supervision and requirements are relaxed somewhat. If they violate the rules, they will be demoted to a more difficult level with greater restrictions and requirements.

Court procedures are difficult, Gregory said, but he tries to remind his participants that the easiest way to recovery is to take it one day at a time.

Dealing with the pressure

For Smith, the worst part of the program was the stress of following the guidelines without making any mistakes, she said. She thinks participants often slip up because of the pressure.

Although Smith graduated, she said others aren't always as successful. Another Recovery Court participant was caught driving drunk only a few days before he was going to be promoted from the yellow level to a less-restrictive blue level, she said. He was then sanctioned by the judge and demoted to more restrictive orange. Though he started two months before Smith, he is currently still in the yellow phase, she said.

Smith didn't agree with the judge's ruling.

"They say relapse is supposed to be a part of recovery," she said.

Gregory agrees that people are bound to slip up from time to time. But to teach Recovery Court participants they must obey the law, he metes out swift consequences.

Using positive reinforcement

Not only is it Recovery Court's job to punish errors immediately, the judge believes the court also must reinforce good behavior. Participants, staff and spectators in the courtroom clap when a participant has had a good week without any program violations. Gregory praises people when they have done something noteworthy, such as finding a job.

To encourage good behavior, Recovery Court staff members decided to shave a month off of the mandatory 12-month program if a person can complete it without any sanctions. A participant can be sanctioned for anything from being caught with alcohol to being late for a meeting.

Getting to the end of the drug rehab program without any sanctions is incredibly difficult, Gregory said.

"When we implemented that our thinking was, 'Well, we'll offer it, but we're never going to actually have to do it because no one's ever going to be able to get through this thing without violations,'" he said.

The staff was surprised, however. About 20 percent of participants now graduate without sanctions, which the staff calls graduating with honors, Gregory said. Smith, who graduated with honors, is proud of her achievement. The program is difficult, but it's worth being organized and dedicated enough to complete it in 11 months, she said.

Saving taxpayers' money

To keep up with the costs of drug tests and Recovery Court employees' salaries, Gregory had to look for additional cash. The original $26,000 planning grant he received from the U.S. Justice Department paid for research and setup. But Gregory has had to continually drum up new sources of income since each participant costs the court from $1,500 to $2,500.

The court now runs on $491,100 in grant funding from the Office of Justice Programs, a part of the U.S. Department of Justice.Gregory also received another state grant for $100,000 per year for four years.

Recovery Court participants must pay weekly for their drug tests. Fees can be reduced somewhat as participants are promoted to the next level.

"People don't value free things very highly. If it's free, it must not be valuable. If you've paid money for it, even if it's a piece of trash, you think it's valuable," Gregory said, "So our people pay for everything they get."

Even though participants are shelling out their own cash for the program, conquering their drug addiction typically works to the person's financial benefit.

"We've found that by the time the person gets toward the end of the first year, the person is telling us that they've never had so much money in their lives," he said.

They're no longer spending money on drugs or alcohol, getting fired because they're too drunk to come to work or skipping town because someone is coming to collect a drug debt, he said.

By the time participants graduate, many have bought new cars, made payments on mortgages or are going to college. A few even own their own businesses, the judge said.

Gregory believes his program changes lives. As of May 15, he noted, 72 adults had successfully completed Recovery Court. Prior to entering the drug rehab program, they had racked up 260 arrests among them. After graduating, the 72 accumulated just 10 arrests.

"We are pleased with these statistics but remain cautious in making any claims because we work with fragile and volatile people. Success in our work, like sobriety, occurs one day at a time," he said.