MAYFIELD -- The specter of substance abuse is everywhere. In many cases, it may not be visible to the naked eye and exist more so in the shadows. But there is that likelihood that those abusers could find themselves in the judicial spotlight with a bleak outlook ahead.
Still, even in those circumstances and for those who want to break free from an addictive lifestyle, there is a ray of hope in that same venue that comes from supervised recovery instead of incarceration.
This month is being recognized as National Drug Court Month. For the 52nd Judicial Circuit Specialty Drug Court, its recognition goes back to 2007 when the program began in Graves County with the goal of reducing drug use and criminal behavior and graduating individuals from the program into society as productive citizens.
At that time, Kim Brand was working as the director of the local CASA (Court-Appointed Special Advocates) when she learned about a new court aimed at addressing the issue of substance abuse outside of a jail sentence.
“I liked the concept of it. I saw it as an opportunity,” Brand, now the Drug Court program supervisor in Graves County, said. “It was in a service role and provided a service to the community that would be beneficial. I liked the whole premise of it.”
Implemented in 1996, Drug Court was the first speciality court program operated through the Kentucky Administrative Office of the Courts (AOC), and is currently in 118 of the state’s 120 counties. Locally, there are Drug Court programs covering the river counties of Ballard, Carlisle, Fulton and Hickman, a program in McCracken County, and another that serves both Calloway and Marshall counties.
Graves County’s program was overseen by then-Circuit Court Judge Tim Stark. Brand said it was a program Stark was in favor of and willing to invest his own time in a voluntary capacity.
“He thought it was an excellent way to address the substance abuse problem on the dockets,” she said. “He saw it as a way to get people in treatment instead of putting them behind bars.”
A participant for the program is first referred by his or her attorney to a judge and the Commonwealth Attorney’s Office for a review of that person’s charges. From there, the program supervisor performs a two-hour assessment with the individual that covers their person, medical, substance abuse, mental health and criminal histories.
Drug Court does not accept any individual who has been charged with a violent or sexual offense.
Those who are assessed as a high risk for potentially repeating their substance abuse cycle without some intervention component in their lives are accepted.
According to the AOC website, participants must also obtain employment. The felony program lasts a minimum of 18 months and the misdemeanor program lasts a minimum of 15. Those who successfully complete the program may have their charges dismissed through diversion or be granted conditional discharge through probation.
Brand said it’s not an easy program. Since beginning 14 years ago in Graves County, 92 individuals have entered Drug Court and 36 have successfully completed it.
“I’ve seen a great many successes. I’ve seen people who have not completed the program and those are sad situations. You never want to see a person falter and go back to jail or go back to prison for not choosing to enter the program or failing in the program,” she said. “It is a hard, hard program. We ask a lot of the participants. But the only way they can fail is if they get a new drug charge or if they are simply non-compliant. We give them every opportunity to fall in line and we back that up with evidence-based treatment components.”
Four Rivers Behavioral Health serves as Drug Court’s treatment coordinator and performs counseling with participants. Random drug tests are also part of the process.
Drug Court is simply a tool, Brand said, to help program participants achieve their goals away from addiction. But, she added, it means using that tool to make drastic changes in their lives. The program uses a 12-step process to guide participants “to do the next right thing in society and in their family life and in their personal life.”
“When doing assessments and talking to individuals who want the program, they often ask ‘What all do I have to change?’ and we simply tell them you only have to change one thing: Everything,” she said. “When you look at it that way, it’s changing the people, places and things, the old habits, and restructuring everything in your life. But that’s what we do if we want to claim the change in our lives, whether that’s spiritually, whether that’s emotionally, physically. We have to change those old habits and those old places and those old individuals who aren’t healthy for us.”
Doing that, Brand added, is tough but starts with a simple acknowledgement.
“Every person I’ve ever sat down with to do an assessment, whether they’ve been in jail or in my office or been on Zoom or Skype, tells me I want change, I want structure, I need this, I need something different and I can’t do this by myself,” she said. “Basically, that’s one of first steps is to admit we’re powerless over whatever has been controlling our lives or ruining our lives and that we want change.”
Those who complete the program graduate with a special ceremony with program supervisors, family and friends who have supported them along their journey. Those were held in person up until last year with the coronavirus pandemic. Along with holding virtual graduations, much of Drug Court also had to be handled virtually.
Brand admitted the participants adjusted to the changes better than she did. “I felt like I needed to be there and participants needed a figure in the office. But AOC said you’re gonna work from home and you’re gonna learn how to do Zoom and your participants will have to do all these things, and they did it,” she recalled. “They brought me along with them. I’ve told them all that. I have thanked them repeatedly for their willingness to comply and learn new things.”
Another positive aspect Drug Court offers is a sense of healing in a myriad of ways. Since the program’s start in 2007, more than $45,000 in child support has been paid by participants along with approximately $50,000 in court obligations. Brand said there have been six drug-free babies born to graduates and that participants have worked 2,400 service hours.
Brand said an added bonus is seeing graduates out and about in the community after turning their lives around through Drug Court. She said one is currently a successful businessman who was still doing well.
“That makes me happy for him. It was what he wanted and what he chose,” she said. “People don’t like to talk about substance abuse but it’s everywhere. It causes such pain and heartache and it doesn’t have to because there’s an option out there.”