By Nita Johnson
LAUREL COUNTY, Ky. — As daylight gives way to evening, a bright ray of hope still shines today for a half dozen people.
That hope is their “graduation” from the county’s drug court program, which is geared to help those with substance abuse addictions to regain control of their lives.
Although the success rate of completion is less than half of those who enter the program, drug court offers many troubled people the opportunity to avoid jail and/or prison. It also offers them a new lease on life by facing and overcoming their various addiction issues as well as their legal issues.
It also requires participants to learn more about the many aspects of Laurel County by requiring community service hours.
But drug court is not for everyone.
Laurel/Knox County Circuit Judge Greg Lay said that persons who commit felony offenses to maintain their drug habit may be eligible for the program, unless that crime is of a violent nature.
“We do not take anyone who has committed a violent crime, even if it is due to addiction,” Lay said. “The people we deal with at the circuit court level are through a referral basis and goes through the criminal justice process.”
The Commonwealth’s Attorney or the defense attorney can make such a referral for an offender, who then undergoes an assessment. The assessment is reviewed by a Drug Court team to see if the client meets their guidelines.
The first step is that the client must have a substance abuse issue and have some pending legal charges which do not constitute a violent crime. The second phase is compliance to the rules set out by Drug Court officials, including seeking employment.
Drug Court is designed in three phases. The first is to undergo a drug test and enroll in a treatment program. Drug tests are given two to three times each week and are conducted so that participants have slim to no chance to “fool the system.”
Cindi Reams-Wagers, program supervisor, explained that those participating in drug court have to call a toll-free number every morning and give their identification number. There is no pattern to the random testing.
“The drug tests are done randomly and you never know when it could be, so there is very little chance that anyone could do drugs or use alcohol without it being detected during that same week,” Lay added.
There is also homework that participants must complete and bring to their sessions, which Reams-Wagers said usually lasts around eight weeks.
The second phase is attending and participating in weekly substance abuse meetings along with several self-help classes. The program usually takes a minimum of 18 months to complete, even though the average is 24 months through the circuit court.
In Laurel County, all drug court cases are handled through the circuit court; although in Knox County, both the district and circuit courts are involved in the program.
The Drug Court team is comprised of Laurel Circuit Judges Lay and Tom Jensen, Drug Court staff, officers with the Probation and Parole, Office of Public Advocacy, Commonwealth’s Attorney, and members of the Cumberland River Comprehensive Care who all meet to discuss the participants, their progress and other issues involved in the program. These meetings are extra duty for court officials, who are not paid for the extra hours they devote toward helping addicts recover and putting them on a road to sobriety and responsibility.
“We realize that there are relapses,” Reams-Wagers said. “In fact, they are common, but we have graduated sanctions when this happens. They have to have an element of accountability.”
But even with the sanctions, participants still have the option to avoid long-term prison sentences if they dedicate themselves to recovery from addiction.
While most of the participants in the Drug Court program are not employed by the time they reach circuit court and are referred to the Drug Court program, they are required to seek employment as well as participate in community service.
Statistics provided by Reams-Wagers show that participants have performed nearly 36,700 hours of community service which includes helping with the American Cancer Society’s Relay for Life Walk over the past 10 years. Other projects have included Shop-n-Share for Domestic Violence Shelters, the Ronald McDonald House Wish List for two years, Warm Hands/Warm Hearts program to collect gloves for children, the Laurel-London Optimist Club food drive, assisting with the Knox-Whitley County animal shelter, and donating two Thanksgiving food baskets and turkeys for the St. William Church mission project. Another recent project was Operation Christmas, which sends shoe boxes filled with candy, sanitation supplies, stationary and other items to underprivileged children.
Taking pride in being an American is also emphasized through National Drug Abuse Awareness Month each May in which participants collect items for care packages that are sent to soldiers in Afghanistan.
While helping others, participants who are behind in their child support payments also receive help getting that balance back on track. Statistics show that $137,454.35 of child support payments has been received from Drug Court participants who have fallen behind in their payments.
“A lot of this is due to addiction issues where the parent isn’t working due to their problem,” Lay said.
Education on the effects of drugs and alcohol on unborn children has also been a focus of the Drug Court program. Once again, through its vigorous agenda and counseling, 23 babies have entered this world drug-free.
Since its establishment in 1999 by former Circuit Court Judges Lewis B. Hopper and Roderick Messer, approximately 449 individuals have been enrolled in the drug court program, with 205 completions.
The Drug Court program is highly regarded across the Commonwealth, with 115 counties of the state’s 120 now offering drug court programs.
“We usually hear how we are behind other states, but with the drug court program, Kentucky is ahead of the other states with 115 of 120 counties having their own programs,” Lay said. “That indicates that we are doing something right with dealing with the substance abuse in our state.”