Merlene Davis: Drug court can be salvation to addicts

One after another, men and women stood before Fayette Family Court Judge Tim Philpot last week to report in.

Most had made their "drops and groups" — urine tests and support meetings — as required and were clean and sober.

Some had not, however. Still, Philpot encouraged those of us in his courtroom to encourage them with our applause.

The men and women in that courtroom had pleaded guilty to a non-violent, drug-related crime; had violated probation because of substance abuse; or were entered for pre-trial diversion. Once accepted into drug court, participants enter into a rigorous drug-treatment program that is filled with accountability and support to help free them from their addictions. For felony offenses, drug court lasts 18 months; it's 15 months for misdemeanors.

Although they could choose to remain in jail, or go to prison, where substance abuse classes are available, the process isn't the same, said Danielle R. Sanders, drug court program supervisor in Lexington.

"Until you get to live life on life's terms," the lessons don't sink in, she said. "You have to have the problems of home, work, schools, bills, no job, no money, no food and still be able to deal with all that and stay clean."

And the more offenders who stay clean, the more we all benefit.

As of December 2011, 14,838 people statewide had participated in the adult drug court. Just over 6,400 were terminated from the program. Nearly 5,000 graduated.

With recent budget cuts, those numbers will go down. Statewide, the number of participants will be capped at 2,200. The current average is 2,542. In Fayette County, the number of drug court participants will top out at 150, from an average of more than 180.

There are three phases for drug court: stabilization, education and self-motivation. Each phase must be completed successfully before participants can enter the next phase. Failure could mean demotion to the first phase.

There are unannounced visits to work and home and curfews. And if there is a relapse, more intense drug counseling is ordered, sometimes with meetings every day for 90 days.

But, if the participant successfully completes all the requirements, the judge can dismiss the charges that landed the person in drug court. If the participant isn't successful, fails to follow the rules, he or she can be terminated from the program and/or jailed.

Christopher Chandler, 38, will graduate from drug court May 16, at a ceremony immediately following the arrival of the first cross-country All Rise America National Motorcycle Relay for Recovery into Lexington after a stop in Somerset.

Sponsored by the National Association of Drug Court Professionals, the relay started in Santa Ana, Calif., on Tuesday, the beginning of National Recovery Month, and will stop at 24 drug court rallies in 10 states before ending in Washington, D.C., on May 24.

Sanders said graduates and former participants will talk about their journeys out of addiction. Some, she said, will be participants who were terminated for rule violations. Despite termination, though, they retained the skills they learned and later used them on their own. "They said they just weren't ready at that time," she said.

At each stop, a biker who is a drug court professional, a veteran or concerned citizen will pass off a gavel, much like the Olympic torch, highlighting the success of the programs and the need to establish more of them.

All that celebration is just fine by Chandler, who three years ago lost his wife and five children, his small heating and air conditioning business, his trustworthiness, and his freedom because of his addiction to crack cocaine.

Chandler said he sold and used drugs in Washington, D.C., disappearing from his family for months while getting high.

A relative suggested the family move to Lexington and stay with her until they could regain their footing.

"She thought if I got out of that environment, things would be better," Chandler said. "The place wasn't the problem. I was the problem."

He began to use drugs again and lost control. That's when his wife took the children back to Washington, leaving him here, incarcerated and with nowhere to turn.

Chandler entered the Hope Center substance-abuse treatment program at the jail and was accepted into drug court.

"It gave me structure," he said. "My biggest fear was failing the program and turning back into the monster that I used to be."

He and his family are reunited and his business, Chandler's Home Improvement and HVAC, is gaining steam. Graduation will be the cherry on top.

"I thank God for the process," he said. "They held me accountable."

After the ceremonies, Dave Amole will be one of the bikers who will carry the gavel to its next stop, Ashland.

As a board member of the Kentucky Agency for Substance Abuse Policy in Fayette County for eight years, Amole said he supports what the program is doing.

Throwing drug abusers in jail or prison "doesn't solve the problem and doesn't answer the problem," Amole said. "It doesn't help them gain the coping skills they need."

Amole said he has been involved with youth for 25 years and knows no segment of society is exempt from addiction. "The problem is so rampant in our society, there just aren't enough jails," he said.

Sanders agreed. Besides, data shows recidivism is much lower for drug court participants than other offenders.

"Honestly," she said, "without it, you have no options."