Drug Court defendants share their trials, triumphs
Post Independent Staff
Editor’s note: This is the second in a three-part series about the 9th Judicial District’s Drug Court. The first part appeared in the Sunday, Sept. 8, edition.
GLENWOOD SPRINGS — To some, it might have seemed the courtroom was enveloped in a “pink cloud,” of the type that has become part of the basic catechism of Alcoholics Anonymous and other 12-step programs for combating addiction.
The “pink cloud,” a phenomenon well known to addicts, generally hits a few days or weeks into an addict’s recovery, and he or she suddenly breaks out of whatever mental thundercloud had been hanging over their sobriety to realize they are on the way to recovery and a better life.
The pink cloud concept, however, is as much cautionary advice as anything. Addicts and drunks typically are warned not to make any big, life-changing decisions while they are under the influence of the cloud, which can last for weeks or months, because the cloud distorts their perceptions and gives them the feeling that anything they do will turn out golden.
But even this rather simplified version of a complex mental process did not quite fit the eager, almost happy mood of the defendants who filled the courtroom of District Judge Denise Lynch on a recent Friday morning of Drug Court.
Drug Court, begun more than a decade ago by the late Chief Judge T. Peter Craven, is a local version of a national program that aims to keep low-level drug offenders out of the judicial system and out of prison.
Lynch, who took on the Drug Court program when she was appointed by the governor to take Craven’s seat after he died, has called it “the favorite thing that I do in court,” noting that her “team” members — counselor John Dent-Romero, with the Roaring Fork Counseling Center, and probation officer Mark Smith — are critical elements in the drug court effort.
From the start, Lynch adopted a much more convivial conversational tone than she displays in regular court, bantering with the defendants and then hearing reports from Dent-Romero and Smith.
As each defendant is called to come forward, it is the defendant who speaks first, such as a man who told Lynch he was trying to get a job driving a truck, with a company that will help him get his CDL, or commercial driver’s license.
“Excellent,” exclaimed the judge, asking questions about the trucking company and the defendant’s plans.
Following that exchange, Dent-Romero and Smith swing into action, with their more clinical observations about how a defendant is doing with the requirements imposed upon them by Lynch, who is the only judge working on the program.
This particular defendant (names are omitted due to an agreement with the defendants) is doing well, Dent-Romero reported, explaining that he was a heavy drug user when he was convicted and sentenced to probation, with completion of the Drug Court program as the chief condition of that probationary sentence.
But the defendant has talked openly about how “defendants are angry at drug court [initially] because it gets in the way of their drug use,” as Dent-Romero put it, adding that the defendant has been following the instructions of the program and doing well.
Smith, concurring, recommended that the defendant be promoted from Phase 2 to Phase 3 of the program.
Where Phase 1 is the introductory, orientation part of the program, Phase 2 involves a restrictive set of rules, frequent drug tests and intensive therapy. Phase 3, the judge said, is a change to less frequent drug tests and to starting on the defendant’s own “relapse prevention program” to be followed after graduation from Drug Court. Graduation, Lynch said, is achieved during Phase 4.
“How are they going to stay clean and straight when we’re not around,” the judge asked rhetorically, noting that some defendants “get used to the structure” of Drug Court and feel lost once it’s over.
“We are trying to see how they do on their own,” the judge continued.
Another defendant in court that day started off by telling Lynch, “If it wasn’t for this program, things would be way different. I don’t know where I’d be. And I appreciate it.”
As often happened, his remarks were followed by applause from the other defendants seated in the gallery — another departure from regular courtroom behavior, as was the fact that the defendant was beaming as he left, having been told he needn’t return to court for more than a month.
Although most of the defendants that day were male, several women sat down at the table with Dent-Romero and Smith to talk with the judge.
“Everything’s good,” said one woman.
She explained that she had kept up with her UAs (urine analyses), was working as a baby-sitter but is looking for a better job, and has been getting along better with her husband after what Dent-Romero described as some very difficult times, financially as well as emotionally.
Correcting her summary slightly, he said she had missed some UAs and had revealed signs of serious emotional strife.
But, he continued, looking the woman straight in the eyes, “It’s all in your hands.”
Another woman, looking despondent and admitting her life was spiraling out of control, told the judge, “I don’t think I deserve to be Phase 3.” Saying her marriage is falling apart, and that she has missed UA appointments, she said, “I’m more emotionally down than I’ve ever been. I need help. I almost want to go to prison, but I can’t do that” because she has children to take care of.
In response, the judge directed she undertake one-on-one therapy with Dent-Romero to help her stabilize emotionally, telling the woman, “We’ll get you back on track. That’s why we’re here.”
One male defendant, who had relapsed after being promoted to Phase 4, was gently informed he would have to go back to Phase 3 and do some more work.
“That seems right,” said the defendant, appearing unhappy but unbowed by the setback.
Another man, confronted by Lynch with the question, “Were you high in last Drug Court?” answered indignantly, “No! Who would walk into drug court high?”
The judge was not convinced, however, and ordered the man to submit to a drug test then and there. When the test came back positive for THC, the active ingredient in marijuana, the judge was not pleased.
“This isn’t working,” she told the man, putting him on a more frequent testing schedule and adding, “You need to make your appointments. I’m about two inches from KVOPing you [judicial shorthand for charging him with probation violation].”
And a man whom Smith characterized as doing well in therapy classes, but having missed a couple of UA appointments, was sent to jail for two days to think about his error. When he asked to be sent to the county’s “workender” program instead of jail, the judge agreed, meaning the man will have to work off his punishment under the authority of the county’s community corrections program.
Yet another man said to be doing well in Drug Court was reminded by the judge, “You were so resistant to this program” when he was first sentenced.
“Absolutely,” the man replied. “It was tough to swallow that my strengths actually were my weaknesses.”
Occasionally, when she felt a defendant had made a breakthrough of some sort, as with this latest man, Lynch handed out $25 gift certificates from the City Market grocery chain as “incentives” to keep working.
In another case, where the defendant was struggling to make ends meet but striving to keep current with his Drug Court obligations, both Smith and Dent-Romero offered to help him outside the courtroom setting,
The cases went on, consuming more than two hours with the tales and tribulations of the addicts, met by a mixture of humor and wrath on the part of the judge and by patient forbearance and a general sense of sympathy from Dent-Romero and Smith.
And as the defendants departed, almost universally they looked more like hopeful contenders for some sort of sports title than like they were headed for a fall and a long, dark time with little to hope for.
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