Drug court: Good medicine for abusers

Dec. 25, 2013 @ 05:45 PM

Redemption is a powerful word, but it’s one that Durham District Court Judge Nancy Gordon likes to use.

Gordon invokes it – sometimes with tears of joy – when she speaks of substance abusers who have made it through drug court.

For many defendants, that means delivery from a life of ruin.

“This is a really unusual court,” Gordon said. “We form a real one-on-one. Everybody who’s presided in drug court thinks of it as a family.”

Drug court lets drug defendants avoid jail by completing a rigorous program.

“You plug people into services, with job counseling and drug treatment,” Gordon said.

Those who complete the program, which can last a year, avoid jail. They often come out the other end prepared for a quality life.

“What is remarkable about drug court is watching people go from where they were to where they can be,” Gordon said. “It’s participating in personal redemption.”

The other side is that for those who fail to follow the program, which includes frequent urine testing, their sentences are activated and they go to jail.

That’s far more expensive for taxpayers than drug court, which costs about $6,000 a year compared to roughly $30,000 to keep a person in jail.

Figures also show that drug court graduates reoffend less often, she said.

“If you’re not well and don’t have a job or get treatment when you go to jail and you’re in the same condition when you get out – that’s the revolving door,” Gordon said.

Those in drug court must have a job, be looking for one or be in school.

“They can’t just sit and do nothing,” she said. “We hook people up with vocational rehabilitation. These are people on probation, and what they’re getting is really intensive supervision.”

At a recent drug court, Gordon called many defendants by name. She knew their backgrounds and how much or little progress they had made.

For probation violators, jail awaited. But for many others, Gordon praised their efforts, including a young man who had recently landed a permanent job with UPS.

Those are the success stories she loves.

“The whole idea is to encourage people,” she said. “We will walk with people. We can’t do it for them, but any one of us can be a resource for somebody who’s having a hard time.”

One person who was having a very hard time until recently is David McDonald, who graduated from drug court in September.

The 55-year-old former alcohol abuser got two years’ probation after his second DWI charge, and was given the option of completing the drug program instead of going to jail.

He said the program changed his life.

“I’m absolutely reformed,” he said before drug court graduation last week in Durham County District Court. “I’m happier today than I was, and my family is, too. Drug court gave me a break.”

Bobby Meeks, 35, another September drug court graduate, said he’d probably be dead without the program.

“I was introduced to drugs at a young age,” Meeks said, “and ended up in jail several times. It progressed to the point where life was unmanageable.”

But he said drug court gave him structure and a solid foundation.

Meeks was homeless, but now he has a job and a home, and attends cosmetology school. He’s been drug-free for 18 months.

“By being in drug court, I’ve avoided death,” he said. “I’m very grateful for it.”

The keynote talk at Friday’s graduation was by motivational speaker and author Tawana Williams.

Born without arms and with impaired use of her legs, Williams brought courtroom spectators to their feet and some to tears as she demonstrated how she could tie her own shoes, draw portraits and change a diaper.

She said anyone can realize their dreams.

“I’m a messenger of hope,” she said as she looked at the two drug court graduates. “I was born without arms, raped as a child and addicted to crack cocaine.”

That turned her into a person with rock-bottom self-esteem, but she eventually changed the way she saw herself, and now loves life.

“You’ve got the power to do anything!” she said. “Reprogram your thinking. All things are possible when you believe.”