Background on the oldest judicially supervised drug treatment program in Texas
Lacey and Isabel are real clients of the Jefferson County Drug Intervention (JCDI) program, but their names have been changed to protect the guilty. They both entered the program young, addicted to drugs, and facing criminal charges, but that’s where their paths diverged.
Lacey stood, pale and shaking, before the judge. She had failed a urinalysis, testing positive for cocaine. Knowing that she faced expulsion from the program for this most recent violation, she had gone straight to an independent lab and had another urinalysis done at her own expense, which showed no trace of cocaine. She had no explanation, she told the judge, for the “false positive” on the same day at the JCDI lab. She had brought the independent lab technician to court that evening as a witness that her urinalysis showed no evidence of cocaine. The technician showed his credentials and averred that the UA he had performed on Lacey’s sample showed no drugs. However, he also told the judge the sample itself was inconsistent with human urine.
Lacey did not go quietly. She screamed, moaned, clung to the bench, and pleaded for another chance, another UA. She played the ultimate sympathy card: Her baby needed her. (Not only was it arguable that a child needs a mother who cannot stay away from drugs, but the “baby” in question was a teenage stepdaughter for whom Lacey had hired another teenage girl to “teach her to fight.”) The judge was not persuaded. He sent Lacey straight to the county jail to await placement in our Substance Abuse Felony Punishment Facility, the in-prison, you’ve-got-nothing-but-rehab facility for the otherwise hopeless addict. Our constable, Charles Wiggins, who is a big, strong man, dragged her with difficulty down the hall. I followed them to make sure I could say otherwise should she later claim he had manhandled her.
It marked the end of Lacey’s third time through JCDI, and Lacey, who is either 25 or 26 years old (depending on which of her jail screens is correct) is now a guest of the state at our SAFPF. Probably once an attractive young lady, she is now an example of the expression “rode hard and put up wet.” She has been booked into the county jail 22 times and is a sorry failure who was given every opportunity to live a clean and sober life.
Then there is Isabel. When she got into the program as a condition of her probation, her drug of choice was meth, and her use was serious. Isabel, a pretty little goth-type 20-year-old with short dark hair, had gotten to the point where drugs were beginning to run her life when she was arrested for possession of meth. Not anywhere near as haggard as drug addicts can be, you could still see a human being in her eyes. Isabel straightened out and paid attention to the program when she found out she was pregnant. Unlike Lacey, she had not invested in the “gangsta” lifestyle so conducive to drug activity. She divested herself of the relationships that encouraged drug use and, more importantly, she wanted to be clean. The night she graduated from the program was also the night she gave birth to a healthy, drug-free baby girl, who is now 18 months old and doing well. Isabel not only raises her child, but she also has a good job and is going to college. She attends Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) and Narcotics Anonymous (NA) meetings regularly. In a few months her probation will be complete, and there is a better-than-average chance our office will never see her again—which is just how we like it.
Isabel’s early choices were every bit as bad as Lacey’s, whether they were a result of medical care gone awry, depression, rebellion, or just youth. The difference is that Isabel decided to work the program, while Lacey believed she could work the system.
Jefferson County was the first county in Texas to have a judicially supervised drug intervention program. It started in 1993 under Justice of the Peace Vi McGinnis. Now run by JP Ken Dollinger, it is still thriving. Since the program started, over 2,000 clients have participated, with some 300 currently in the program. So far, more than 650 people have successfully graduated, translating to a success rate of almost 40 percent, which according to Dena DeYoung, a licensed chemical dependency counselor who has worked with the program since its inception, is the standard for the field.
Perhaps drug diversion works because it takes care of a lot of people who would otherwise have fallen through the cracks. Ms. DeYoung believes combining treatment with probation/punishment is what makes the difference. People who have never been held accountable, faced with this program’s rigors, must answer for their actions. With drug intervention, they have a true support group for the first time, comprising not only their counselor and probation officer but also their peers. They can reach out for help and it is there, where before, they were addicted in isolation. With drug diversion, a full year of their lives is dedicated to addressing problems they might not have known they had, including, for instance, lack of self-esteem, past physical abuse and neglect, and struggles with education. These are difficult enough for the healthy among us to address; the escape of drugs only exacerbates them. Without a respected and respectful mentor to tell them so, many simply do not comprehend what we all know about being a productive member of society. If there is judgment, it is from a peer, not from a judge or an attorney whom many addicts perceive as never having walked in an addict’s shoes.
Part of the JCDI program is Moral Recognition Therapy, or MRT. Not everyone in JCDI can attend MRT, as classes are limited. It is a judicial sanction option for those who need extra strength when it comes to some issues. MRT is peer-driven, which cuts down on lying to an extent not possible otherwise. (It is hard to sneak a lie by people who are themselves expert liars.) People delve deeply into their issues and come out able to cope in a way they could not before. They learn to recognize destructive behavior in themselves and either move past those issues or accept them. In short, they learn to cope and accept responsibility for their actions, possibly for the first time in their lives, because they are not being told what to do by those educated in rehabilitation, but rather by the rehabilitated. Other sanctions the judge can impose include verbal reprimands, essay assignments, attending 30 AA meetings in 30 days, and jail time. Clients attend court either once or twice a month, depending on what phase of the program they are in.
Getting into the program
Basically, the program takes place at the probation office, where people are assessed and their urine and/or hair analyzed for drug use, and where they attend group or individual classes and meetings. They attend AA or NA meetings at the location of their choice and hand in proof they have attended at least three meetings every week. When real trouble hits (relapse is expected), clients may be sent to full-time programs as well as halfway houses. Graduation is contingent upon their having paid program fees in full.
There are five ways a person can get into the program in Jefferson County. Most are in as a condition of probation ordered by the trial court. Some come in as a condition of bond through the pretrial bond office. Others are clients of the Women’s Center or attend as a follow-up to their stay in SAFPF. Still others are approved by the district attorney’s office, usually at the request of a defense attorney. Our elected DA, Tom Maness, has been a proponent of the program from its inception and has set up criteria that allow appropriate candidates into the program on a pretrial, and sometimes pre-indictment, basis. Acceptable candidates have little or no criminal history—young people particularly, who would not have been in other trouble but for drug use. The probable cause affidavit is always checked, as are more detailed police reports. If we suspect the potential client is a dealer rather than an addict, application is denied; the last thing program clients need is a supplier!
Once conditionally accepted, the client is sent for an interview and assessment. If drug addiction exists and the person agrees to cooperate, a year-long commitment to the program under contract with the district attorney’s office begins. Once the client who has been admitted through this office successfully completes the program, the case is dismissed (if it was filed) or refused back to the applicable law enforcement agency (if the client was admitted pre-indictment). If the client does not successfully complete the program, she is placed back in the system as if the case had never been interrupted by admission to JCDI. Admission through this office is a single chance and the client will either succeed or be back at square one with the criminal charges. The client could come back to the program as a condition of probation or as a follow-up to SAFPF; while our office is firm on this, the program is not. Speedy trial consequences are waived by contract.
Benefits of drug intervention
Life goes on for people in the program. Eight healthy babies were born to women in the program in 2007; one of them tested positive for amphetamine. CPS took custody of the child but has since returned him to his mother. Five clients earned their GEDs that year and five others enrolled in school. Of the 66 people who graduated, 65 were employed full-time at graduation; the remaining graduate is disabled.
One of the greatest benefits to society is that recidivism is demonstrably lower among the population of graduates. Recidivism in Jefferson County is 29 percent, compared to nearly 60 percent nationwide2 and over 31 percent statewide.3 According to the program’s own figures, recidivism for successful JCDI graduates over the last three years has averaged just over 11 percent. This lowered recidivism rate mitigates the program’s cost to the county, which pays just under $190 per client per year compared to some $19,000 per prisoner per year (based on the $52 per day the sheriff’s office charges law enforcement agencies) for the incarcerated, though some costs as well as program fees of $500 are paid by the participant. (For example, attendees have to pay for the books if they are placed in MRT, and they have to pay their probation fees if they are in treatment as a condition of probation.) A study by Southern Methodist University showed that for every dollar spent on drug court in Dallas, $9.43 in tax dollar savings was realized; this savings includes court time, jail time, wages earned (with taxes paid), and lower mental health care costs.4 Even if one sets aside the aspects of compassion and concern for the life of another human being and the bottom line is purely financial, drug intervention programs save money as well as lives.
Drug use cannot be ignored, whether it be illicit drug use or prescription medication abuse. Jonesing for one’s drug of choice leads addicts to theft, assault, robbery, burglary, fraud, murder, intoxication manslaughter, and a host of other offenses. Will we get rid of crime by developing and utilizing drug diversion programs? No. A resounding no. Consider, though, if we could turn three of every 10 drug users into productive members of society. Think of the costs avoided for otherwise keeping those people in jail, on probation, and in court, not to mention reducing habitual or repeat drug crimes and prosecutors’ time that could be re-routed into other important cases.
Isabel and Lacey were each given a chance. Only they could decide what to do with that chance. One is home caring for her daughter and turning her life around; the other is in jail. All we can do is provide the opportunity. ✤
1 According to its website, www.bettyfordcen-ter.com.
2 According to the United States Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice Statistics website, www .ojp.usdoj.gov.
3 According to the Legislative Budget Board report of 2005, available at www.llb.state.tx.us.
4 Fomby, Dr. Thomas B. and Vasudha Rangaprasad, Divert Court: Cost Benefit Analysis, Southern Methodist University Department of Economics, 2002.