Drug court aims to keep addicts out of prison
September 7, 2013
Editor's note: This is the first of a series of articles about the 9th Judicial District's Drug Court program.
GLENWOOD SPRINGS — Only on Friday mornings does the fourth floor of the Garfield County Courthouse, where the district courtrooms are, echo with the sounds of laughter and small talk, as though a miniature party were in progress.
And it is not every Friday — only the Fridays on which 9th Judicial District County Judge Denise Lynch holds drug court, a 12-year-old program that aims to keep addicts out of the regular courts and on a path to recovery and a life as productive members of society.
Approaching the door to Lynch's courtroom on a recent Friday morning, a reporter met with an unusual array of smiles and greetings from a couple of dozen men and women who, if they had been waiting for a more typical judicial appearance, would have seemed apprehensive at best, sullen and resentful at worst.
"It is a specialty court," Lynch said, "to provide for defendants who are high-risk and high-need" but who are not identified as violent or dangerous offenders.
"This is their last chance before they go to prison," Lynch said Friday just before drug court opened for the day.
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Chief Judge T. Peter Craven began drug court in Glenwood in 2001 after learning of its usefulness in other jurisdictions and thought it would make a good addition to the 9th District. The local court is a member of the National Association of Drug Court Professionals and, Lynch said, represents the fruition of volunteer work on her part and the part of her drug court team.
Lynch, formerly a private attorney, was appointed to Craven's seat on the bench when he died in 2006 and assumed his oversight of drug court.
Her team, she said, also includes John Dent Romero, a certified drug and alcohol counselor, and Mark Smith, a probation officer in the district, who together take defendants through a four-phase program that begins with the defendants' "orientation" into their newest judicial environment.
Alternative to jail
Basically, drug court deals with offenders found guilty of some drug offense and, rather than facing jail or prison sentences, receive probation with drug court as the principal condition of that probationary term. If they graduate from drug court, they have met their obligation to pay for their crime.
If they mess up in drug court and the judge bounces them out, Lynch said, defendants are liable to serve whatever sentence they avoided in the first place.
"We get it all, heroin, meth, prescription medication," Lynch said — even pot, which many courts consider a low-level drug despite the fact that the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration classifies it alongside heroin.
"If we're treating an addiction, you can't smoke pot and be high," Lynch remarked, adding that the program treats addictive behavior rather than the addict's response to a particular substance.
"We're trying to change that addictive behavior and find out through treatment and therapy what caused that behavior," she continued, adding that drug addiction often is a response to sexual or physical abuse people experienced when they were children.
"And they use alcohol and drugs to mask that pain," Lynch said.
To get the defendants oriented"to the program, Lynch explained, "We try to build trust. Most of them have been in the system for a long time, and they don't like authority figures."
Once a defendant admits to having a problem, Lynch said, he or she typically graduates to Phase 2, which involves therapy on either an individual or a group basis "to change their cognitive, criminal thinking. It is the hardest phase. It really is the meat of the program, because this is where we change the way their mind thinks."
Relapses are almost expected, she said, and the result typically is a couple of days in jail for first-timers — or longer, depending on the severity of the relapse.
The third phase, Lynch went on, is "kind of a maintenance phase." The mandatory urine analysis tests are less frequent, and the appearances before Lynch in the courtroom are, too.
"We need to see how are they going to stay clean and straight when we are not around," she said.
Some addicts "get used to the structure" of the program and freak out when that structure is withdrawn.
"We want them to be able to function in society on their own, and be productive members," Lynch said.
The program has an 85 percent success rate, she said, meaning that only about 15 percent of participants back to their old ways. Nationally, she said, the average success rate for drug courts is 75 percent.
In response to a question about why the 9th District's program performs better, she said, "We have a really good team." And she added that the program savers taxpayers roughly $32,000 a year in food and other costs every time a defendant stays out of prison.
"Drug court's my favorite thing that I do," Lynch said. "I get to interact more than in any other cases, one-on-one, with these people. And you bond with them — you really do."
Her discussions with drug court defendants were much less formal, much more congenial than her regular court court cases, and every now and then she would declare herself "proud" of a particular defendant's progress and hand him or her a $25 gift certificate from City Market as what she called "an incentive" to keep improving.