Drug Court offers a Second Chance

If your life hasn’t been touched by addiction, count yourself not only lucky but in the minority. The statistics are staggering: 31.9 million American adults (aged 12 and older) are current illegal drug users; the number jumps to 53 million Americans if you include both those who use illegal drugs or misuse prescription drugs; 14.8 million people have an alcohol use disorder in the U.S. Drug abuse and addiction costs American society more than $272 billion annually in lost workplace, productivity, healthcare expenses, and crime-related costs. Of the 2.3 million people in American prisons and jails, more than 65% meet the criteria to be considered addicts.

Paula Langford and Jeff Dickson address the Court on both the successes and set backs

In 2018, 47% of young people had used an illegal drug by the time they graduated high school. Additionally, current users (within the past month) included 5% of 8th graders, 20% of 10th graders, 24% of 12th graders. Between 1999-2017 over 700,000 people died in the U.S. from drug overdoses.

No person, no race, no age group is immune.

From the housewife who convinces her doctor to keep her on valium, to the husband who drinks a six-pack driving home from work each night, to the injured worker who starts on pain pills and can’t get off, to the teenager who smokes weed on the weekends, to that pretty girl we all remember from high school, that has now lost her family, her children and maybe even her life to meth – it’s all around us.

The Drug Court Team holds weekly meetings to determine how each participant is doing in the program

Be it directly in your family or just in your community, it effects us all.

So how do we stop it? The million-dollar question, of course.

Jail is always an option. Arrests and then convictions, at least get drug abusers and sometimes their dealers, off the streets, but rarely is this a permanent solution.

In Middle Tennessee, however, specifically Wilson, Macon, Smith, Jackson, and Trousdale county, there is an option that is definitely making some headway.

The 15th Judicial District Drug Court Program began in 2002 with the help of the late Judge Bond and a team of professionals trained to break the cycle. Drug courts are specialized courts across the country for those addicted to drugs or alcohol. Rather than send people to jail, over and over again, drug courts use a multi-faceted approach with the aim of reducing the chances of re-arrest and relapse. They do this through interactions with the judge, treatment and rehabilitation services, monitoring, supervision, sanctions, and incentives.

There are consequences for failure, so if the individual continually relapses or commits crimes, the system effectively reverts to the ordinary, incarceration-based approach.

Initially, our local drug court program was only open to persons arrested in these five counties, for crimes involving felonies – basically any criminal charge that did not include violence, for which you could be sentenced to serve more than a year in jail.

Drug Court Team: Assistant District Attorney, James (Jimmy) Lea Jr.; Criminal Court Judge, Brody Kane; Program Coordinator, Jeff Dickson; Logan Rosson, Bethany Maynard; District Public Defender, Shelley Thompson Gardner; Darlene Cahill, Paula Langford (not pictured: Kristine Seay, Pete Pritchard and Terry Yates)

Judge Bond and later Judge Wootten, were instrumental in growing and supporting the drug court program that was near and dear to both of them. Upon Judge Wootten’s retirement in 2019, Criminal Court Judge, Brody Kane took over the reins and expanded the program to include any misdemeanor offenders out of criminal court in all five counties that he serves.

“I’ve got children. That’s my reason for wanting to be involved in this,” says Judge Kane. “I see the devastation first-hand drugs are doing to our community – my community. I grew up right here in Watertown and moved back to Lebanon after graduating from law school in Memphis because I wanted to raise my children in a community far away from drugs and crime. But, realistically, I was being a naive 27-year-old father. I know now that those same things affecting the larger cities are coming this way and some are already here. I’m proud to follow in the footsteps of Judge Bond and Judge Wootten and also proud to serve alongside Judge Tiffany Gibson who has started a misdemeanor drug court in Jackson County and Judge Michael Collins who has started a misdemeanor drug court in Smith County. We all grew up right here when things were maybe simpler, we all have children we are raising in these communities and we want them to stay here and be safe here and we are all determined to fight this fight against drugs in as many ways that we can.”

“But this isn’t about the Judges,” he continues, “ we are just the ‘heavy’ you might say, this is really about the drug court team led in the 15th Judicial District Drug Court Program by Program Coordinator, Jeff Dickson. Jeff and his team include professionals that have years of experience helping people successfully battle drug addictions. They truly care about the people in the program and are cheering them on when they succeed and are devastated for them if they fail. The team includes probation officers, behavioral health services and provides services specific to veterans. For me, the best result is, if we Judges never see our participants in our courts again – maybe I’ll see them at Walmart – but I hope to never see them in my court again.”

Drug Court – as it’s called – is a sentencing option available to the court that focuses both on treatment and supervision of people convicted of felony or misdemeanor charges. In essence, the Judge has the option, if you either plead guilty or are found guilty of any crime not involving violence, of allowing you to participate in the Drug Court program as part of your sentence.

If chosen to participate then those individuals will receive treatment for alcohol and/or drugs at the local level while also being under intensive supervision to ensure compliance for at least 18 to 24 months.

“You are still under probation during the 18 to 24 month period, so you still face punishment for your crime, but as part of that probation you now get this intensive drug and alcohol treatment,” notes Program Coordinator Jeff Dickson.

“And yes, it’s a two-year program, because that’s what it takes to break the cycle.”

Treatment is provided locally and usually begins with a residential or in-house stay. Thereafter, participants step down to an intensive outpatient program – 3 days a week for 3 to 4 hours a day.

After that, each person continues outpatient treatment with AA/NA meetings and continuing education. Home visits, as well as work visits, are conducted by the supervising team throughout the length of the program. Every participant is required to work full time, attend school or if disabled, do volunteer work. If the participant does not have a high school diploma, they are expected to work towards their GED. The participants are drug and alcohol tested regularly and randomly, they must remain drug and alcohol-free, and they must adhere to strict rules about who they associate with and abide by curfews. They check in weekly, not only with the drug court team, but each week, in court, with the Judge and if there is a misstep the Judge can sentence them immediately to jail for that violation.

There are different levels – after a participant proves himself with not only continued sobriety, but also following all the rules and expectations in place, they move to the next level, and then the next level, with the goal that in two years they can graduate from the program.

Jeff Dickson has seen some real success with the program, “It’s intense. We only allow 30 participants at a time and we closely monitor them, encourage them, and support them. Of those that are allowed into the program, only 30% will actually graduate but of those graduates, 70% will not return to court in the next 5 years.”

That’s a very good result because, without intense treatment and monitoring like this, the national average recidivism rate is that 77% percent of drug offenders are re-arrested in five years, and nearly half of those within the first year of release.

Anyone convicted of a non-violent crime can contact the drug court office either on their own or through their attorney to apply. The Drug Court Team then evaluates each candidate based on their prior record, their support systems, whether they have transportation or employment, the type of substance abuse, and the amount and frequency of said drug use.

The program is also voluntary. Judge Kane finds, “you’ve got to want to get off the drugs or alcohol. My ordering you to treatment won’t help anyone truly recover from addiction. The fire inside you to seek treatment has to be brighter than the fire around you. But if you are ready, then this team will do everything in their power to help you never see the inside of a jail again. We are losing a generation of people. I’ve seen folks I’ve gone to school with come in front of me for sentencing and now I see their children in court for the same crimes. We have to find a way to help that doesn’t just involve locking them up and then letting them out to just get locked back up again. That only puts addicts back on the street to not only possibly hurt themselves but also your children and my children.”

Success stories abound with this program, notes Shelley Gardner, District Public Defender who has been on the drug court team for a number of years, “we have three former graduates that have started their own business. Two former graduates that either work or volunteer in the Drug Court program and most importantly, seven out of ten graduates of the program never return to court. We support them but they do the work and I’m always amazed at the two-year mark by the transformation.”

Assistant District Attorney James (Jimmy) Lea Jr, adds “Our team works with each individual on a weekly and sometimes even daily basis to give them support and feedback when they are struggling. During the COVID-19 crisis, when we couldn’t meet in person, we quickly moved the face to face meetings to Zoom because continuity and contact is so important. We try to be there not just when participants are succeeding but also when they have hurdles because getting over those hurdles without relapsing is the key.”

Dickson and his team stand ready to continue to help those in the community that are ready themselves. Some people are not given the gift of recovery because they are either too far gone or no longer with us, but for those that are prepared to fight for that recovery, there is not just hope, but a structured road with a light at the end of it.

To find out if you or someone you know is eligible for this program, contact the Drug Court Director at 615-453-5314.

15th Judicial District Drug Court Team serving Wilson, Macon, Smith, Jackson and Trousdale counties

Program Coordinator: Jeff E. Dickson Drug Court

Senior Case Manager: Paula Langford

Criminal Court Judge: Judge Brody Kane

District Public Defender: Shelley Thompson Gardner

Assistant District Attorney: James M. Lea, Jr.

State of Tennessee Probation: Bethany Maynard

Treatment Provider Volunteer Behavioral Health: Kristine Seay

Drug Court graduate and volunteer: Logan Rosson

Vocational/Veteran Services: Pete Pritchard Veteran

Peer Recovery Volunteer: Terry Yates Drug

Court Case Manager: Darlene Cahill

Angel Kane - Kane & Crowell Family Law Center

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