Recovering their place in society

In fledgling drug court, longtime users who stick to a stringent schedule for staying clean find success

February 05, 2006|By ANDREA F. SIEGEL | ANDREA F. SIEGEL,SUN REPORTER

One by one, flanked by a drug tester and a social worker, they stand on Monday afternoons to face a stern-faced judge.

Did drug tests show they are using or clean? Are they job-hunting or working? Are they going to treatment, counseling and the like? Are they motivated?

Their answers determine the balance of praise and punishment, advice and admonishment from Michael E. Loney, the judge leading the fledgling adult drug court in the Anne Arundel County Circuit Court.

Started in December with a $120,000 grant, the drug court aims to offer convicted felons a defined path away from drug use. It's a rigorous hike led by a team that includes a public defender, prosecutor, probation agent, and health and court officials.

Like more than 1,000 drug courts nationwide, this program combines a short leash and threat of jail with long-term treatment and the demands of a more conventional lifestyle.

The drug court offers a structured program of "baby steps" toward a new life, said Assistant Public Defender John Gunning.

But it helps only those who help themselves.

Each participant has court appearances, treatment, counseling, therapy, work, 12-step meetings, sessions with probation agents and more. It's so much to keep track of that the court gives each participant an item foreign to most: a pocket-size calendar.

The book symbolizes taking charge of their own lives, eliminates the "I forgot" excuse and elevates them into the world of people who have appointments to keep and things to accomplish.

"It's a new way of thinking for most of them," said John Fullmer, program administrator.

Part of the busy schedule is meant to foster improved habits. Another is to complete four phases of treatment, get a job and the like. But it is also to diminish idle time when there's nothing to do but drugs.

In an interview this week, Loney said he is proud of progress and saddened by setbacks, wants addicts to demonstrate their motivation with results and understands relapses.

"I don't want somebody who is going to play the system. People who use drugs often have been manipulating people for a long time, and they are very good at it," he said.

In coming months, the pilot program drug court is projected to expand to 50 defendant-clients. For now, there are 10.

Four hazy decades of cocaine, marijuana and alcohol were enough for James Makell. He stood before Loney the other week, having leapt at the chance last month to trade jail for drug court.

"Street life, it's not for me," he told the judge.

He's put in job applications. His drug tests have been negative. He has met every appointment. Loney nodded and offered gentle encouragement.

"It's hard work," Makell said.

A reward: He won't have to return to court for three weeks.

In an interview this week, Makell said he wants a different lifestyle, one of better health and stability, one in which he has a personal sense of worth, one without prison.

He's 59, balding, diabetic. "No age is too late," Makell said.

His case manager, Michelle Klassen, helped him negotiate the Social Services maze to ensure he gets his medicine, he said.

Last year, Makell admitted, he flunked out of a drug rehab program, too eager to get out but not ready for reality. He was arrested for a positive drug screen while trying to make headway in a second program.

"I am much more focused about what to do now," he said.

His family is helping him get on his feet, providing a home and car, he said. The Workforce Development Corp. helps him apply for jobs. He likes getting his "concentration level" back, he said. He has a goal of being productive, finding work to tide him over until he can find the groundskeeper work he likes. Meanwhile, he's done work on his sister's home, he said.

In the recent ups and downs in his courtroom, Loney told one drug court participant after the next, "It's a commitment. You really have to want it."

One recovering addict was ordered to spend a day in lockup for failing drug screens and missing appointments. Another was accepted into the program a week later after straightening out his living arrangements. Another won profuse praise for clean living and a positive attitude.

"This is the most worthwhile thing I have ever been involved in," Loney said.

On one level, drug court goals are intended to reduce the jail population, save tax dollars spent on incarceration and protect the public from drug-related crime.

On another, the goal is to help people beat addictions and become contributing members of society. People who complete drug court programs are less likely to return to crime.

This is the third drug court in Anne Arundel County, which also has programs in juvenile and district courts.

Invited participants have been convicted of nonviolent crimes and then violated conditions of probation - like Makell, typically by using drugs again. What they are being offered is the drug court program while on probation instead of jail time for the probation violation.

Klassen is one of the people who evaluates candidates for drug court.

"What I really am looking for is they are tired of their lifestyle, tired of the drugs," she said.

Transportation difficulties, forgetting and inconveniences are not acceptable reasons for skipping court, treatment, counseling, job hunting, drug testing, 12-step group meetings or anything else. Transportation assistance is available for those who need it.

Klassen can hand out bus tokens to needy participants, help craft a workable schedule and offer other help.

"What we are saying is we are willing to give you an opportunity to do something different," she said. "What drug court does is give them an incentive to do the right thing, and doing the right thing doesn't have an instant payoff. But then they will feel good about themselves from the change."

andrea.siegel@baltsun.com

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