Breaking the cycle

Graduates of Howard court program are moving beyond drug and alcohol dependency

January 04, 2009|By Tyeesha Dixon | Tyeesha Dixon,tyeesha.dixon@baltsun.com

Purnell Parker remembers when his drug addiction was so bad that he ate nothing but peanut brittle for an entire summer because he was broke.

But for more than a year, Parker has not used drugs. The 38-year-old Baltimore man wears a medallion that serves as a symbol of his recovery and to remind him of his new life - along with a seemingly perpetual smile. And after getting the upper hand on his dependency, he says, he is resolved to help others facing the same struggle.

"When I was using, if you couldn't tell me where the next best corner was, I didn't have [anything] to say to you," he said. "I believe I was blessed to bless someone else."

Parker attributes his progress in battling addiction to a three-year-old county program for habitual offenders who have committed addiction-driven crimes. Called the Drug/DUI Court, the program provides intensive treatment, supervision and judicial monitoring to help those with chemical addictions break their dependence, said Bobbie Fine, Howard County drug court coordinator.

In 2006, Parker was arrested in Howard for driving with a suspended license, the latest in a string of brushes with the law that included drug charges. Last month, he was one of 12 people to graduate from the county's latest Drug/DUI Court program.

About 100 people filled Courtroom 5 at the District Courthouse in Ellicott City for the ceremony, including graduates' family members and friends, former program participants, attorneys and government and law enforcement officials.

"With these programs we are breaking the cycle of addiction," Fine told the crowd gathered for the ceremony. "We are changing lives."

The programs in Maryland and elsewhere in the country were created in 1994 with federal legislation sponsored by Sen. Joe Biden of Delaware, who now is vice president-elect, according to the National Association of Drug Court Professionals.

Nationwide, more than 2,000 drug courts are in operation or being planned, according to the association, a membership and advocacy nonprofit organization. The purpose of the courts is to offer habitual offenders treatment and follow-up, providing a cost-efficient and effective way to curb drug and drug-related crimes, supporters of the program say.

The National Institute of Justice says research shows that, compared with traditional criminal justice strategies, treatment and other costs came to about $1,400 per drug court participant, saving about $6,700 on average per participant in avoided recidivism, or more than $12,000 if victims' costs are included.

There are 39 similar court-supervised drug treatment programs throughout Maryland, but Howard is one of only three counties whose program includes an alcohol treatment component, Fine said. The others are Anne Arundel and Harford counties, she said.

"There are a lot of people who get DUIs, and they either get [probation before judgment] or probation, but they're not really supervised," Fine said. "People who are third-timers need something more, and we thought the treatment aspect was needed."

The Howard ceremony is held twice a year, Fine said. Last month's graduation was the county's seventh since the program began, and 54 people have completed the program, Fine said. The drug court was established in 2004, and the DUI component was added the next year.

"Drug and DUI courts work," said District Judge Neil Axel, who presided over the graduation ceremony. "With these programs, we are breaking the cycle of addiction, we are changing lives, we are strengthening families and we are improving our community."

Howard County's chief administrative officer, Lonnie Robbins, said to the graduates: "As a community, we are proud of you for going through this program. Today's ceremony announced to the world that you are ready to move to the next step."

Several drug court participants said it helped them get a new start. A poem written by one of the graduates was included in the program for the ceremony:

You had the time to spread your wings

Now it's time for you to fly

Embrace life with open arms

And know that you got through the worst of the storm

Know that you are exactly where you are supposed to be

And life can be all you ever dreamed it to be.

For Parker, the small things in life bring him happiness these days, such as being able to spend Halloween with his child. He attends daily Narcotics Anonymous meetings, even though the court mandates that he attend only three to four a week.

"This is a celebration, but my process still goes on," he said. "This drug court team believed in me and saw some stuff I didn't see in myself. I didn't think I ever had anything to offer anybody."

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