Sandlapper
The Magazine of South Carolina
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DRUG COURT

In certain cases, it's more practical & effective than incarceration.

DRUG COURT PHOTO GALLERY

Drug Court graduate Heather Pounds

Graduate Graham Houghten Jr. exchanges hugs with a program worker

Lead Counselor Mike Reed

The Lexington County Drug Court team

LRADAC official Horace Smith


Article by Aïda Rogers/Photos by Michael J. Seeley

This is a story with a very happy ending. And it’s one, interestingly, in which its participants want their full names used.

"I’m very proud of myself," said Heather Pounds, a 23-year-old recovering crack addict and mother of three. "That took a lot of effort."

Pounds is one of more than 40 people who’ve successfully completed Lexington County’s Drug Court program. After 14 months of intense counseling, group therapy, weekly drug testing, 12-step meetings and emotionally wrenching soul work, Pounds graduated amid smiles, tears, applause and balloons. It was the hardest thing she’d ever done.

"I feel grateful for what this program has given me the ability to do," she said, addressing the crowd gathered in the courtroom at the Lexington County Courthouse. "It has really helped me rehabilitate myself and feel good about myself." Like many other Drug Court graduates, Pounds choked up at the podium, especially when she talked about her family. "They stood by me through this, and I have a relationship now with my spouse and my sister that is unbelievable."

Drug Court graduations are emotional. They’re festive, too. Families bring cameras. Graduates dress up. Judges wear big smiles and refreshments are served. If you didn’t know better, you’d think you were at a wedding, what with the little children in pretty clothes, the occasional baby cry and the whispers and giggles. But these are extraordinary occasions in the lives of the participants. Graduates have learned to do one of life’s most difficult things: change their thinking and, thus, their behavior.

"My granddaughter is an addict, my grandson is an addict; this is not the sort of graduation a grandfather plans to come to," said Phill Ramsey, Heather’s grandfather. But it’s the one he can be most proud of. Ramsey, like other participants and family members, was invited to stand up and address the graduates. His words were unforgettable: "I’ve got children with Ph.Ds, master’s and B.A.s, but this really takes something to graduate." A former corrections officer with the Department of Youth Services in New Hampshire and the Department of Juvenile Justice in South Carolina, Ramsey believes in Drug Court. "I sure hope you guys stick together and keep this thing rolling. After all, addiction is the loneliest place to be."

 


 

Ramsey isn’t the only one who wants Drug Court to continue. So does Gov. Jim Hodges, who promoted it in his state of the state address. Lexington County’s program, the state’s first, is three years old. To date, there are six adult drug courts in South Carolina—in Charleston, Greenville, Kershaw, Lexington and Richland counties, plus a Tri-County court for Saluda, Edgefield and McCormick counties. Juvenile Drug Courts, for offenders 12–17, are operating in Charleston and Richland counties. A third juvenile Drug Court is being implemented in Lexington County, with more adult Drug Courts proposed for Beaufort, Clarendon and Spartanburg counties. A bill for the program to be launched statewide was introduced last year in the legislature; efforts will be made to obtain passage of the Drug Treatment Court Act during the next legislative session.

"It’s an alternative means of punishment for certain types of people," Judge William Keesley wrote in the July/August 1998 issue of South Carolina Lawyer. He described it as "a treatment court, merging intensive treatment with the power of a court."

Today, Keesley is nationally known for his work with Drug Courts and is president of the statewide association. He, Lexington County Solicitor Donnie Myers and Ann Davidson Asman, director of the 11th Circuit Pre-Trial Intervention Program, traveled to Oregon to study that state’s model. "It was just overwhelming to see all these people—the most liberal defense attorneys, the most conservative prosecutors, the line officers who have to beat down the door wearing bullet-proof vests, the chiefs of police—all singing the praises of the same thing," Keesley recalls. "You don’t ever see that. And once I did and had a chance to sit in on one with a judge from Washington, DC, I was hooked."

Drug Court makes sense, Keesley believes. For one thing, it’s cheaper. It costs about $2,800 to rehabilitate an addict through Drug Court, rather than $16,000 in taxpayers’ money to house one in prison for a year. And best of all, it works. Drug Court treats the problem of addiction, not its result.

"The truth of the matter is that if you send somebody to prison for a year, they’ll be out in a few months, and then they won’t be in long enough to even get in the in-patient program at the Department of Corrections, which is an excellent program," Keesley points out. "But even if they got through the in-patient program, they come out with no supervision." Supervision is what Drug Court provides.

In Lexington County, the praises echo from the sheriff to the Department of Probation, Parole and Pardon, public defender’s office, solicitor’s office and Lexington-Richland Alcohol and Drug Abuse Council (LRADAC), which manages the treatment aspect of the program. "I think Drug Court is the best thing to happen to the criminal justice system in the past 50 years," said Mike Reed, LRADAC’s lead Drug Court counselor. Cooperation between professionals in law, law enforcement, judiciary and substance abuse make it work, he said. "We all have the same thing in mind, and that’s getting the client better."

Those familiar with substance abuse understand that addicts are sick, not bad. Their disease consumes them so totally they do things they ordinarily never would—stealing from families and friends to support their habits. Drug Court accepts nonviolent, chemically dependent offenders only. It would never, for instance, accept someone who sold drugs but wasn’t addicted. "Can you imagine the mess that would cause?" Reed pondered dryly.

Drug Court wages a full-scale attack on addiction. Constant, mandatory drug testing (once a week, sometimes three or four times) cuts through the addict’s denial of drug use. Intensive therapy (in the beginning, three group sessions a week, with one night of drug court and two 12-step meetings weekly) forces participants to learn about their illness. They also must pay a weekly fee of $20 to continue in the program, as well as pay restitution to their victims.

"It’s like dealing with a bunch of kids," observed Reed, a recovering alcoholic/addict with 16 years’ sobriety. "If parents aren’t consistent in addressing their behavior, kids will play it as far as they can."

Drug court participants are consistently "sanctioned" by jail or community service, if their drug tests are positive or if they don’t attend their quota of 12-step meetings or group sessions. "The accountability that the court offers and the immediacy of consequences that are provided to the clients is the key." Most addicts eventually learn that if they do drugs, they’ll be caught and put in jail or assigned community service. And nobody, Reed believes, wants to spend time in jail or work for nothing.

Drug Court graduates have a 60-percent rate of success, reported Carson Fox, assistant solicitor and director of Lexington County’s program. That’s not perfect, but it’s encouraging. And the positive changes in the addicts affect all those around them.

"I really like being there when the light comes on," Reed said. "Whenever a little girl stands up and says, ‘Thanks for giving my dad back,’ you can’t put a price tag on that."

And as Drug Court graduates become active in Narcotics Anonymous, they become inspirations for those who follow. "I truly believe these people can help others," Reed added. "When you see someone like Heather become a productive member of society and carry the message to others, she has the ability to have a positive effect." Another dramatic example: One Drug Court graduate, a former computer analyst, is going back to school to become a substance abuse counselor.

 


 

While Drug Court graduates appreciate the program, often their families appreciate it more. Hear these words from Marilyn Pounds, Heather’s mother: "If you want to see an ugly duckling that turned into a swan, look at her," she said. When Heather disappeared, leaving her children in different houses, Ms. Pounds just knew she’d emerge for her own daughter’s birthday. When that didn’t happen, she began to understand the devastation addiction had wrought on Heather’s life. "I’ll never forget the day I picked her up. It was the saddest thing. That was the first time I realized she was truly sick. She would have to get help or die."

Heather was in jail, pregnant, when she accepted the lifeline Drug Court offered. Now she’s back in school, going to NA meetings and mothering her children the way she did before. "She went from being a great mother to a woman whose only function was to be high," Ms. Pounds said.

Bob Beym remembers how unkempt and irresponsible his son was when using drugs. But now, he’s proud of his son, who has a steady job and keeps himself up. "This has been a real godsend to a lot of people," Beym said, adding that a treatment program in New Jersey they tried earlier didn’t work. "We were thrilled to get him into this."

Beym paused, trying to express the conflicting emotions that come with parenting an addict. "You have a child you love very much. One minute you love him. The next, you hate him. We still worry about him. You never know; he’s a recovering addict and we are concerned. We see progress and we like him a lot more. And he’ll talk to us now."

Drug Court officials are equally pragmatic. Reed said they expect clients to relapse; indeed, that’s part of the illness. When clients relapse, they’re sanctioned. If there are chronic relapses, they’re terminated from the program. Judge Marc Westbrook remembers when five participants were terminated at one time. "Some of them were crying, some of them were yelling, and one of them told me, ‘Thank you very much; you’ve got a good program.’ " They were led out of the courtroom in handcuffs.

Westbrook and Keesley have mixed emotions when participants don’t make it. Though disappointed, they usually feel they’ve done all they could. "For the integrity of the program, you have to kick them out," Westbrook believes.

Keesley, however, often points out how difficult it is for an addict to get clean. "If it’s somebody who really tried but just couldn’t shake it, it hits kind of hard."

Of course, the good news is that even those who don’t make it are better for the trying. The recidivism rate is much less for Drug Court participants who are terminated than for those who didn’t get into the program at all. The longer participants stay in Drug Court, the less likely they’ll commit crimes later.

When Westbrook and Keesley see terminated participants later, the positive changes are obvious. "I’ve seen one come up in roll call at court several times and he looks great," Keesley said. "When he first came in the program he looked like death walking."

Statewide, there are 75 adult and 52 juvenile Drug Court graduates. About 100 adults and 155 juveniles are participating in the program now. Each program is planned and managed differently. In Charleston, for example, Probate Court Judge Irv Condon voluntarily presides over that county’s brand new adult drug court.

 


 

In Lexington County, Drug Court is every Thursday at 6 p.m. The atmosphere is not one of anger and confrontation, but of family and harmony. Participants seem to look forward to their time before the judge, who inspects their most recent reports and listens to their counselors describe their behavior. Keesley and Westbrook admit they’ve got the easy job: They’re positively parental with their comments. "I’m proud of you, keep it up," they say. Or, "You were doing well for awhile; what happened?" At one point, Keesley counseled a pregnant participant about the physical and legal consequences of using while expecting. Both judges try to impress upon the defendants that they’re lucky to be in Drug Court, that it’s an opportunity many don’t have. Westbrook and Keesley donate their time, driving hours from courts elsewhere in their circuits to help the addicts, either with strokes of encouragement or sanctions for unsatisfactory behavior. "That’s so impressive that they’re willing to do that on top of everything else they do," noted Fox, the director.

In fact, Ernest Finney, chief justice of the South Carolina Supreme Court, worries that rotating judges could burn out from the travel and other judicial duties. Still, he believes in the concept. "Based upon the analytical data furnished to us by other states, Drug Court offers an opportunity for meaningfully addressing one of the major dilemmas facing society and the judicial system in South Carolina."

The judges are the only pure volunteers with the program. Others are paid through a grant from the U.S. Justice Department, Lexington County Council and participant fees.

While Drug Court is friendly, group counseling is confrontational. But that’s where clients bond, Westbrook maintains. "We expected a real problem with transportation, but these people go around and pick each other up. They’ll check on one another."

Westbrook recalled one client who quit coming to court and treatment because he was living in Orangeburg. Counselor Reed went to Orangeburg to check on him. "Now, he doesn’t get paid for that and he turned that guy around," Westbrook said admiringly. "Going to his house and showing up on his doorstep and saying ‘I’m not going away’ really turned him around. The treatment here, it’s just unreal how good it is."

The average length of time for a participant to move through the three phases of the program is 511 days. Some are there for less; some don’t graduate until they’ve had 800 days. Either way, Drug Court offers far more than the typical 30-day run at a treatment center. Counselors watch clients change from homeless, unemployed, angry and self-centered to happy, working, tax-paying citizens repairing relationships with family and friends. Addiction knows no color, class, age or income, Keesley said. "We’ve got people from all walks of life—pharmacists, nurses." Clients range from 18 to 50-plus. Most are dually or multiply addicted to alcohol, marijuana, crack cocaine, heroin and prescription drugs. "When Methamphetamine hits here like it’s hitting California, Lord knows what’s gonna happen, because people can make that in their garages."

 


 

"What I want to say is Drug Court saved my life and Narcotics Anonymous is teaching me how to live," said Graham Houghten Jr., a salesman who once earned six figures, wore custom-made suits and spent vacations in the Caribbean. He was driving his Q45 Infinity when he was arrested for possession of cocaine.

Today, Houghten wears blue jeans and a T-shirt, earns significantly less as a cabinet maker and drives a pickup. But he likes himself—and his life—much better now that he’s 10 months clean. "I threw away my entire financial wherewithal in a year," he said. "My net worth was a little over $300,000."

Though he smoked marijuana for years, a painful divorce triggered the heavy cocaine use. During the worst of it, he used $300–500 worth of cocaine a day. "It hit me that hard and that quick and took everything away from me, especially things that were near and dear to my heart, like my daughters."

But 15 months in Drug Court brought those daughters back and gave him something he never had: inner peace and a relaxed attitude. "I work hard and try to find happiness in today," said Houghten, 36. "I’m not obsessed with tomorrow. I’m not trying to find ways to escape reality like I used to. And that was not only drugs; that was scuba diving, sailing—whatever I could do to escape reality."

The way Carl Harris sees it, Drug Court works because it’s tough and it addresses all aspects of addiction. "You have to earn everything in Drug Court; you don’t get a second chance a lot," upholds the 48-year-old certified welder, father and grandfather. To Harris, Drug Court isn’t like a treatment center because "they change you altogether. They try to look at your attitude, thinking and behavior, and they make you deal with all the issues."

The death of his son spurred the already-drinking and using Harris to use even more. He realized his life was out of control when his license was suspended, he got arrested and his children were getting embarrassed by his behavior. He accepted the offer of Drug Court and graduated in 13 months. Now he’s been clean two-and-a-half years and makes a point to talk to young people about their addictions.

"The biggest thing I can do is stay straight and show people it does work and let them see you can change," he said. "So many people out there want to quit but they don’t know how.

"I think a lot about young people. They’re our future. You know, we might not save them all, but if we save just one, it’s worth it."


ARTICLE AND PHOTOS ARE FUNDED BY LOURIE & SAFRAN, ATTORNEYS AT LAW "HELPING PEOPLE WHO NEED HELP," COLUMBIA

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