Garfield court for drug offenders is thriving

Ryan Summerlin
Judge John Neiley presents Trenton McCall with a card for his graduation from drug court in this 2015 file photo.
Post Independent |

Drug cases flood the 9th Judicial District, just like at courts across the country, but in Garfield County a different model of justice and response is thriving.

Garfield County’s Ray Combest Adult Drug Court recently won state accreditation from Colorado Supreme Court Chief Justice Nancy Rice for “outstanding evidence-based and proven effective practices.”

The 9th’s recovery court, named for the late Combest, a previous chief probation officer and big supporter of the problem-solving court, was established in 2001.

“All of those involved in these problem-solving courts are to be commended for their hard work and diligence in researching, developing and implementing what we know to be the best court practices,” Rice wrote in her announcement of the newly accredited courts. “Colorado has been very progressive in the adoption of a variety of problem-solving courts. I am confident more of these courts will be accredited in the near future.”

Recovery courts aren’t all that new, but they are a dramatically different system than the normal criminal courts.

Recovery court is “such a different template from what I normally see on the criminal docket days, and the sentencing days,” said Judge John Neiley, who has been the recovery court judge for the past four years. “The dynamic of the whole program is a completely different beast from what I see every day — in a very positive way.”

Recovery court is often the last stop for drug offenders who would otherwise be bound for prison. So it’s another tool for the criminal justice system: one that’s cheaper than prison or community corrections and one that the recovery court team says has a better shot of keeping that person from reoffending.

“A lot of times I think you’re just warehousing people in [the Department of Corrections]. We have nothing else to do for you, so you’re going to prison,” said Neiley. The data supports that the recovery court programs provide a path for those offenders who otherwise might be imprisoned and not get the treatment they need, said Neiley. “You send someone to DOC and a lot of times they come out a better criminal than they were when they went in.”

A major benefit of this kind of program is its treatment offenders wouldn’t be able to get otherwise because it’s so expensive. Through the recovery court program, a participant can get treatment paid for through the state’s correctional treatment cash fund.

“We try to make sure there aren’t any barriers; the only barrier is what their commitment to sobriety is,” said Will Sightler, the district’s chief probation officer.

Another important part of this program is that it doesn’t take this person out of the community. Hopefully, they’re able to be productive, holding down a job and supporting their family, said Neiley. It enables them to meet the needs of their addiction that they haven’t been able to achieve without the more rigid, structured program that recovery court provides, said the judge. “And it is a really rigid program.”

It’s at minimum a one-year program, but participants go through phases requiring strict sobriety, so often it takes participants longer to complete.


Not just any drug offender can go into recovery court. It’s really built for a select group of defendants, those who are high risk to reoffend and who have a high level of need of treatment for their addiction, said Valerie MacDonald, the judicial district’s problem-solving court coordinator. Currently the recovery court has nine participants, but that number fluctuates quite a bit. MacDonald said the team tries to keep it at 15 to 20 participants. The recovery court’s success rate floats around 50 percent.

The program includes four phases of 90 days each. During each, the participant must achieve 90 days of sobriety to progress to the next phase. If they relapse, it’s back to square one of that phase.

But in those early months, complete sobriety is a pretty long-range goal, and it’s expected that a new participant may relapse. The first goal isn’t even sobriety — it’s honesty. The court first wants participants to admit if they’ve used and is relatively lenient with those early in the program.

“If we can’t get honesty, we can’t work with them. That’s really difficult,” said MacDonald.

At the beginning of the program, participants are faced with an extreme challenge for which they’re often not ready, said MacDonald. So the first phase has a lot of structure built in. Participants must appear before the judge every two weeks, meet with probation about once per week, attend outside treatment through Mind Springs, be on monitored sobriety and take random urinalysis tests.

During every review in court the judge has the ability to give a participant sanctions or incentives based on their performance. For instance if a participant is giving “hot” urine samples, he or she could be required to do community service, spend time in jail or even go to intensive residential treatment.

But as the program progresses, the recovery court starts to pull back the structure of support little by little. They don’t have to show up before the judge as often. Participants are starting to prepare for living a sober life outside of the recovery court’s strictures. But the main piece that stays in place throughout are the urine tests, said MacDonald.

“Research shows that you don’t want to do that because you’ve pulled back on everything else. It’s the one thing that will tell us if there’s a problem before we have a real problem,” she said.


The end goal is for a participant to successfully complete the program and leave with solid supports in place to help avoid relapsing. So recovery court wants to see them involved in outside support groups like Alcoholics Anonymous, community-based groups and generally participating in pro-social activities, said Neiley.

Currently the recovery court team includes MacDonald, the judge, probation, two treatment providers, a jailer and a representative from the district attorney’s office. The recovery court team is also working with the public defender’s office to get a representative on board after its representative relocated. After that, it’ll be a full team.

Bringing all those parties together into the recovery court really shows that “we’re trying to move out of silos and look more at how well, as a justice system, we function,” said Sightler. Achieving the state accreditation is “truly validation that what we’re doing is quality,” he said.

“Recovery court gives you a fuller picture of that person’s life, not just the arrest, the mug shot and the silly or really dangerous things they did,” said Sightler.

“It’s not for everyone, but in those rare instances, it’s one of the most rewarding things I do,” said the judge. It’s a common story for those who are successful in the program to start reconnecting broken relationships with their kids and other family members, he said. Parents will often come to the recovery court sayings things like “I feel like I’ve got my son back,” said Neiley.

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