by MATT MILLER, The Patriot-News
Sunday January 04, 2009, 7:00 PM
DAN GLEITER, The Patriot-News
The inaugural graduation ceremony of the Cumberland County Treatment Court program takes place at the county courthouse for three graduates, including Dawn Mercer of South Middleton Twp. At the graduation reception, Mercer shows grandson Julian Miller, 6 months, to drug and alcohol case managers Sally Kraus, left, and Andrea Janssen, right. Kraus and Janssen are part of the Treatment Court team. Known as drug court, Cumberland Countys Treatment Court reaches the hardest of the hard-drug and alcohol cases with an alternative approach. Clients meet the rigors of reform or risk time in prison. Participants, who also must follow individual court-ordered recovery plans, take an average 18 months to two years to complete the program. Patriot-News staff writer Matt Miller and photographer Dan Gleiter spent several months following the progress of Treatment Court. They were granted access to court sessions, which are closed to the public, and to other behind-the scenes proceedings. Interviews were done with principals in the program. Except in cases in which people agreed to speak on the record, only first names are used to identify treatment court participants.
Lives hang in the balance in treatment court, or “drug court,” as its promoters and participants call it.
Some clients might really die if they dont end their spirals of addiction. For others, prison is their only future.
Nearly two years into Cumberlands treatment court program, six people have done it — graduated.
Failures are twice as common.
That is pretty much the rule for the more than 2,000 treatment court programs nationwide.
The failure rate of all such programs is significant, but proponents insist that statistics show that those who complete such programs are much less likely to break the law again.
A 2002 study of a sampling of 95 treatment courts by the National Institute of Justice found that 27.5 percent of program graduates were arrested again within two years of completing the program.
By contrast, 46 percent of offenders in those same jurisdictions who did not go through treatment court committed new crimes within two years, the study found, and more than 60 percent had violated probation.
Perseverance is not a trait most addicts possess. Drug court officials try to teach it through a system of rewards and penalties.
“We employ a series of carrots and sticks, incentives and sanctions that are designed at first to get people clean and sober, then develop life skills to help keep them that way,” Senior Assistant District Attorney John Dailey said.
Those incentives can be a round of applaus or a kind word from the judge or other officer of the court.
Sometimes, the kudo is more tangible.
“We give out gift cards for good performance,” Deputy Public Defender Linda Hollinger said. “Sometimes we let them draw from a fish bowl with items like a piece of candy or a slip of paper that just says, Good job!
“That may sound silly,” Hollinger said, “but this is often the first time in their lives that people have given them a pat on the back for doing something good.”
Lindsay received quite a few pats during her last months in drug court.
She entered the program as an emaciated wreck. Over time, the tall, attractive young mother had evolved into a role model.
She had proved to be a hard worker. In a few weeks Judge Skip Ebert would preside at her wedding. In October, she would graduate.
“Youve really applied yourself, just like you did with that Prozac thing,” Ebert said during one of the regular Thursday court sessions.
Lindsays reward that day was a gift certificate from Dairy Queen.
Everyone in the room applauded.
George had a different experience. Hed missed a Narcotics Anonymous meeting.
Ebert made him write an essay on his goals for changing his life.
George looked like a tough guy, not a literati. Yet his essay touched the judge.
“This is one of the best ones Ive ever gotten,” Ebert told him. “Its well-written and sincere.”
The tough guy smiled.
Recovery from addiction occurs in degrees.
That is evident to anyone who spends some time in drug court.
“Weve been absolutely amazed by the changes in some of these people,” Hollinger said.
“For example, one client had been incarcerated in the prison system for most of his life, since he was 17 years old,” she said. “Now, for the first time, he has a place to live. He works. We applauded when he got a bank account.
“When he was in prison, no one showed him how to do any of that,” she said. “Hes just enjoying life.”
“You see dramatic physical changes,” Dailey added. Almost everyone gains weight and loses that starved, haggard “druggie” look, he said.
Cynics become believers
Twice since August, a handful of graduates from Cumberland Countys treatment court program have stood in a courtroom, a place they once feared, and received accolades from their families and from people who under other circumstances would have been intent on sending them to prison.
One of the first grads, Dan Cutchall, said the greatest compliment he received came from Houser, who has had to fight cynicism every day of the 22 years shes been a probation officer.
He almost cried when probation officer Kerry Houser said hed become “someone I can trust.”
No one had told him that before, Cutchall said.
Not long ago, he said, it wouldnt have been true.
“I think our program is very successful,” Houser said. “Its very rewarding to see the changes in these people.”
Dawn Mercer, who graduated with Cutchall, said she entered drug court as a cynic and emerged a true believer, thankful to have left behind a life of addiction and drug dealing.
“I dont believe I could have done this on my own,” she said. “This program turned my life around. I cant thank these people enough.”
For more on this series, see Mondays Patriot-News and click here.
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