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Drug Court: A S.T.E.P in the Right Direction

Drugs. We've read the headlines, watched the news. Drugs and alcohol, and the effect they have on our friends, coworkers, family and community, are bigger and more destructive than ever. And they're not going away any time soon.

The cost to taxpayers is staggering. The backlog of drug cases has hopelessly mired our court system. And in many cases, the damage done to families is irreparable. 9 out of 10 of us know someone who is addicted to drugs or alcohol. 80 percent of criminal offenders who pass through the North Carolina justice system are involved with drugs and/or alcohol, and most of them are addicted. Incarceration has simply not proven to work. For the addict, jail is just a revolving door.

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STEVE WARD: They told us they were addicts and all we did was tell them to heal themselves.

PETER GILCHRIST: We can lock them up in the morning and that afternoon they're already out again, on the streets selling.

BOB WARD: We had to be honest with ourselves. The system just wasn't working.

VOICE OVER NARRATOR: More and more, judicial and medical experts agree the only solution is to identify and treat the disease, to break the cycle of addiction, crime and recidivism, and to bring about recovery.

In Charlotte, North Carolina, the justice system is working hand in hand with treatment specialists in a relatively new drug treatment court program that has seen remarkable success. It's called STEP, for Supervision, Treatment, Education and Prevention.

STEP targets non-violent, non-dealer alcoholics and addicts with prior records. Offenders who participate in the voluntary program are required to prove their sobriety and complete three phases before they graduate; treatment for their dependence on alcohol or drugs, case management meetings and weekly drug testing. And the client must pay for his or her treatment.

The first order of the day is the swearing-in ceremony. These drug addicts are being accepted into the STEP program by judge Fritz Mercer.

MERCER: You're mine now. (motioning to SAIL and court staff)These people are your family. You know what that makes me? Your daddy.

VOICE OVER NARRATOR: In Drug Court, the judge indeed acts as the father, dispensing parental advice, while sternly meting out punishment. In the same sentence he may congratulate the addict for a long period of sobriety, then chastise him for missed meetings. In some cases, when an addict fails to comply with the program, he is ordered to attend more meetings or court sessions...or go directly to jail.

BOB WARD: The program is both hostile and sympathetic ... it's not intended to punish or berate. Losing a family or having your life threatened is already enough punishment.

DONNIE: After you're sworn in you see a case manager. You go to four meetings a week, and you have to get a sponsor.

CHRIS MOSES:You haven't been going to meetings ... (more dialogue form Chris and client)

ROSALIND JAMES: The case manager is a liaison between the client and SAIL, the probation officer, the DA, the public defender. He gathers the information and keeps the communication lines open. He makes sure the client gets the services he needs.

VOICE OVER NARRATOR: At the independent treatment facility, the case manager, probation officer and treatment staff meet with the client to formulate a unified case plan, specifically designed to fit the client's emotional, social and family needs.

STEP program clients attend Alcoholics Anonymous or Narcotics Anonymous meetings at least three times a week, more if possible. It is in meetings such as this that clients share his personal stories with other users from diverse backgrounds. By laying their lives bare, users discover they are not alone, and that they have the support and love of their fellow addicts.

MELISSA: It took 28 days in jail to get my attention. I was using, selling. My whole family either uses or sells.

CARL My life was chaos when I drank. I always got into trouble.

WILLIAM H.:(testimony on court) I used to be a police officer and professional ball player. I got caught in a drug raid. So you see, it doesn't discriminate between classes.

BOB WARD: The Drug Court program gets their attention. It asks the question, "are you an addict?" Deep down all addicts want to be sober, they just don't know how to go about it. Drug Court gives them the knowledge and the tools to get sober. We don't make recovery happen, but create the system that allows them to find recovery.

ISABEL DAY: To make the program work we had to free up one attorney, Bob Ward, to work with the District Attorney and the judges. We set in motion the plan, the funding and the committee to start Drug Court.

BOB WARD: (voice over)Drug Treatment Court started in 1989 in Miami. In the next 4 years there were 12 courts nationwide. We were one of the first 50 courts by 1995. There are now over 1200 courts in the United States.

VOICE OVER NARRATOR: Clients are required to attend two court sessions a month. At a typical Drug Court, the client is represented by a Public Defender, a Case Manager, a Probation Manager, a representative from the independent treatment facility, and the District Attorney.

The client's progress in the program is reviewed and critiqued by the judge, who either applauds or chastises. Even when the addict has relapsed or has failed to attend the required meetings, the judge tries to encourage, rather than punish.

HUGH LEWIS: Drug Court is a constructive court. I can build something. Courts punish, but Drug Court can reconstruct so they won't have to go back out on the streets and commit crimes.

FRITZ MERCER: (In court) Susan has 249 days, let's give her a hand. Congratulations, Wilhelmina. 540 days. Personally, I didn't think you could do it.

HUGH LEWIS:(In court)John has 265 days clean and sober, folks ...

VOICE OVER NARRATOR: Sometimes it takes more than friendly persuasion to get an addict's attention.

PHILIP HOWERTON: (In court) You have four unexcused absences. You owe me 24 hours ...You had a relapse, Joe. I want you to go to Hope Valley. They have a bed ready for you. So go there. Good luck ...72 hours in jail if you don't return those meeting sheets. That ought to encourage you ..

VOICEOVER NARRATOR: For the addicted substance abuser, the program is tough, but not impossible. It takes at least a year of self-examination, working on family relationships, wrestling with temptation and the surrendering of power.

TYLER: I have to focus on the here and now. I have to stay away from old haunts. It's been real hard, but the tools they give you save your life.

GEORGE: What's real important is when you share at meetings. You have to fight your temptations, find a sponsor, work with your case manager. Staying focussed is hard.

CARL: You have to find a new way of living. Being sober means a lot to me.

DONNIE: At first I thought it was just another way for the state to make money. But now I think if it wasn't for the program I would be doing my time in jail.

JESSE: Drug Court did for me what I couldn't do for myself. Without the program I'd be dead. Drug Court lets you take computer classes, and they're free.

TERRI: 13 months in the program was a big change for me. I have my boys back.

WILLIAM H.: I have a house and a family. I got three jobs right now. So go to computer class and get your GED

BOB WARD: Judge Howerton said, "if a county commissioner or city official had a relative with a drug problem, they would call a treatment center, not call the police to come arrest them.

PETER GILCHRIST: With addicts you see a lot of unattractive people, a lot of down-and-outters. But they need help as well as the affluent.

HUGH LEWIS: We see people who have lost everything, jobs, houses, families, and they turn their lives around and correct them.Drug Court in 12 to 18 months undoes a lot.

STEVE WARD: They need to be coerced, threatened, as opposed to our being a cheerleader. We are more of a guide.

ROBERT JOHNSTON: I was skeptical, but I'm convinced now that drug courts work. We don't see the same people as often.The recidivism rate for graduates of the program is 11 percent, while it's 45 percent for those who didn't go through the program.Studies show that Drug Courts work and actually save money.

VOICEOVER NARRATOR: Treatment and supervision for each Drug Court participant may reach $3500 annually. To incarcerate a drug offender in a North Carolina prison can cost nearly ten times that amount.Add to those costs, emergency room visits, social welfare system expenses, crimes, auto crashes, lost work time, drug-exposed newborns, and the intangible cost of lives negatively affected by the drug or alcohol abuser.

ROBERT JOHNSTON: Some say that "those who use, should lose," but the state hasn't got enough money to lock up every user. Traditionally, Drug Courts are viewed as a luxury, and many want to cut the funds for Drug Court. Only 25 percent of Drug Court funds come from the state, with the rest coming from grants and donations. It would be a mistake to cut the funds for Drug Court.

HUGH LEWIS: We will save money in the long run, by frontloading success. Once a person is clean, they are putting money back into the system. Spending money on jails will not work.

BOB WARD: These programs are started with very little money. Nobody makes extra money in the drug courts.

STEVE WARD: In the criminal courts all we ever see is failure, probation. We never see the success stories. In the drug courts we see successes. I have a story about an addict named Janet. The said she wanted to plead guilty and the DA said, "what if I told you you could go to a year-long program and achieve recovery, and get your charges dropped?".A year later she stood up in court, recovered, her life back together. She said she wanted to thank that DA. His name was Steve Ward.

HOWERTON: (in court) If you do what these people tell you to, you'll make it. If you don't you might end up in jail or prison, or dead, if you don't kill somebody first.

CARL: In five years I hope to have a new business.

DONNIE: The program helped me with managing money, getting back on track. Soon I hope to be an executive chef for a hospital.

JESSE: I come back to talk to these people. I'm giving back something that was so freely given to me.

TERRI: It saved my life and it'll save yours, too. They care about you.

GEORGE: In 10 or 15 years I hope to be blessed with children and a career. Through the program I've been given a second chance.

TYLER: I look back on the experience as positive.

VOICEOVER NARRATOR: Today is graduation day for two hard working STEP program clients, Alphonso and Marcel. Each graduate receives a certificate from the STEP program and the treatment center staff. From the DA, a dismissal of charges.

ALPHONSO: (through interpreter) I had a tough time. I had a relapse. But I had a lot of help from everybody. The program does work.

MARCEL: If it hadn't have been for everybody at SAIL and my case manager and everybody I wouldn't have made it.

PETER GILCHRIST: All courts are works in progress. Some fail. No one has the perfect system. We don't have the recidivism rates we would like, but we are making progress.

BOB WARD: One addict clean affects four others. People are sold on recovery. A recovered addict can offer someone a much better way to live than a dealer. Our way is better.

ROSALIND JAMES: We have clients who have failed at everything else. We motivate them, encourage them to take baby steps.

HUGH LEWIS: We need to accept these people, to drop the stigmas that they represent, to accept them. That's why I keep coming back every day. That's why I do what I do.

ISABEL DAY: It's a great start. Drug Courts are one area we can be the most proud of in the system, a shining start for the criminal justice system in North Carolina.

BOB WARD: What Drug Courts teach us is that if we are willing to change, the payoffs are tremendous. The changes are miraculous; it's such an encouragement. We can't afford not to do it.

DEPUTY: All rise. This court is now adjourned.

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