Drug court gets people’s lives back
GLENWOOD SPRINGS, Colo. There’s a black, 1,000-pound telephone sitting on the rail between the audience and the court.It actually weighs only a couple pounds, but the fake barbell on the phone with “1,000” written on it gives people a simple reminder: It’s hard for anyone to pick up the phone and say, “I need help.”That’s what drug court is all about – getting help.”We want people to reach out because one of the biggest risk factors for addicts is isolation,” probation officer Terry Shanahan said.Shanahan took charge of drug court on the probation department’s end in March 2006.At a recent drug court session, Shanahan’s pumping everyone up before Judge Denise Lynch comes in. He offers encouraging words and advice to help keep people on track. He discusses second chances. He talks about goings on and good attitudes to have in the drug court community.”Is softball tonight?” someone asks, excitedly.Softball games are one outlet drug court uses to develop pro-social activities. The idea is to relearn how to socialize and engage in healthy activities without drugs or alcohol.That’s what drug court is about.Today no one goes in or out during court. Shanahan says there was some disturbance at a previous session.”People’s lives are on the line here,” Shanahan said. “It requires a great degree of commitment and concentration,” and there can be no disruptions.
Drug court is about caring and second chances. People in the audience cheer and share hugs when personal battles are won. But it’s not perfect and there are setbacks.A lot of people starting in drug court just want to get by and aren’t really invested in the program. That comes later.”Almost everyone who starts has no intention of changing,” Shanahan said.Building relationships with people in the program – peers and authorities both – tends to make people want to succeed instead of fail in front of all those eyes. Counseling and sanctions are also a big part of the four-phase program. As someone progresses through each phase, they are granted greater freedom. There’s less supervision and testing. Experienced drug court participants take on the role of mentor to the new faces in the program. Sanctions are imposed if participants miss a test or an appointment or fail in some way.This could mean anything from being forced to appear and sit in the jury box to time in jail or being sent back a phase. Lynch, Shanahan and others have also been creative with sanctions. They’ll assign an essay for someone to write as a sanction that hopefully makes them think.It’s not all fun and games.”People get kicked out fairly regularly,” Kimberly Ridings said. Ridings is scheduled for graduation from drug court for May 18. Shanahan said the success rate for drug court is high in the short term, but that long-term tracking of graduates hasn’t yet been implemented.In a recent session, one man was recommended for phase four. Two women in the audience passed notes back and forth saying he relapsed several times didn’t he? And shouldn’t one of them be recommended instead?Another man was issued an arrest warrant for not showing up. Someone else recommended for phase four later was sanctioned and forced to apologize after someone noticed alcohol on his breath and Breathalyzed him.But that’s what drug court is about. People inevitably make mistakes, but over time and with the support they receive they have the opportunity to improve their lives. They often do, which beats sitting in jail. People sometimes are able to fool counselors and staff for a little while, but the program is so intensive it usually doesn’t last.If people do somehow make it through without changing, they’ll probably end up back in the system, Shanahan said.
Judge Lynch started working with drug court in December, and Shanahan took over for probation a month earlier. The new faces have been a challenge for some people who started in the court with Judge T. Peter Craven, probation officers Ray Combest and Kyle Miller. But things seem to be working well.Craven died after suffering a heart attack in June 2006 and Combest was killed in a car accident in February 2005. Earlier this week, the man who killed Combest in a road rage incident was sentenced to four years in prison.Miller remains a probation officer but has moved to the Breckenridge area.”It’s a huge challenge,” Shanahan said of the changes. “Addicts don’t do well with change. It’s been difficult for the entire court, but people did very well, actually.”He had positive things to say about Lynch.”From where I sit, it seems like a really difficult job and I think she’s doing great,” he said.A drug court participant also seemed to think so.”Judge Craven – I think he was probably a man of great compassion,” she said. “He could look at us and know that we needed help, not to be sitting in a jail cell. I’m sure his shoes were pretty hard to fill. … I think (Judge Lynch) is pretty fair. It’s like she can see through the excuses, but she’s also very ready to praise somebody.”In the room is an “eternal flame” light set up as a tribute to Judge T. Peter Craven.Contact Pete Fowler: 945-8515, ext. email@example.comPost Independent, Glenwood Springs Colorado CO
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