Ninth Judicial District’s Drug Court program aims to keep addicts out of prison
Post Independent Staff
Editor’s note: This is the first of a series of articles about the Ninth Judicial District’s Drug Court program.
GLENWOOD SPRINGS — Only on Friday mornings does the fourth floor of the Garfield County Courthouse, where the district courtrooms are, echo with the sounds of laughter and small talk, as though a miniature party were in progress.
And it is not every Friday, but only the Fridays on which Ninth Judicial District County Judge Denise Lynch holds Drug Court, a 12-year-old program aimed at keeping addicts out of the regular courts and on a path to recovery and a life as a productive member of society.
Approaching the door to Lynch’s courtroom on a recent Friday morning, a reporter was greeted with an unusual array of smiles and greetings from a couple of dozen men and women who, if they had been waiting for a more typical judicial appearance, would have seemed apprehensive at best, sullen and resentful at worst.
“It is a specialty court,” explained Lynch, “to provide for defendants who are high risk, and high need,” but who are not identified as violent or dangerous offenders.
“This is their last chance before they go to prison,” said Lynch on Sept. 6 just before Drug Court opened its doors for business.
Drug Court here was started in 2001 by the late Chief Judge T. Peter Craven, who had learned of its usefulness in other jurisdictions and thought it would make a good addition to the Ninth District. The local court is a member of the National Association of Drug Court Professionals and, Lynch said, is accomplished by volunteer work on her part and the part of her Drug Court Team.
Lynch, formerly a private attorney, was appointed to Craven’s seat on the bench when he died in 2006, and also assumed his oversight of the Drug Court.
Her team, she said, is made up of her, John Dent Romero, a certified drug and alcohol counselor, and Mark Smith, a probation officer in the district, who together take defendants through a four-phase program that begins with the defendants’ “orientation” into their newest judicial environment.
Alternative to jail
Basically, the Drug Court deals with offenders who have been found guilty of some drug offense and, rather than being sentenced to jail or prison, are sentenced to probation with Drug Court as the principal condition of that probationary term. If they graduate from Drug Court, they have met their obligation to pay for their crime.
If they mess up in Drug Court and are bounced out by the judge, Lynch said, defendants are liable to serve whatever sentence they avoided in the first place.
Commenting on the kind of defendants who end up in her Drug Court, Lynch said, “We get it all, heroin, meth, prescription medication,” even pot, which many courts consider to be a low-level drug despite the fact that the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration classifies it alongside heroin.
“If we’re treating an addiction, you can’t smoke pot and be high,” Lynch remarked, adding that the program treats addictive behavior rather than the addict’s response to a particular substance.
“We’re trying to change that addictive behavior, and find out through treatment and therapy what caused that behavior,” she continued, pointing out that drug addiction often is a response to sexual or physical abuse experienced as a child.
“And they use alcohol and drugs to mask that pain,” Lynch said.
To get the defendants “oriented” to the program, Lynch explained, “We try to build trust. Most of them have been in the system for a long time, and they don’t like authority figures.”
Once a defendant admits to having a problem, Lynch said, he or she typically graduates to Phase 2, which involves therapy on either an individual or a group basis, “to change their cognitive, criminal thinking. It is the hardest phase. It really is the meat of the program, because this is where we change the way their mind thinks.”
Relapses are almost expected, she said, and the result typically is a couple of days in jail for first-timers, or longer depending on the severity of the relapse.
The third phase, Lynch went on, is “kind of a maintenance phase.” The mandatory urine analysis tests are less frequent, the appearances before Lynch in the courtroom are, too.
“We need to see how are they going to stay clean and straight when we [drug court] are not around,” she said.
Some addicts “get used to the structure” of the program, and freak out when that structure is withdrawn.
The goal, Lynch explained, is, “We want them to be able to function in society on their own, and be productive members.”
The program has an 85 percent success rate, she said, meaning only about 15 percent of participants fall off the wagon and go back to their old, addictive ways. Nationally, she said, the average success rate for Drug Courts is 75 percent.
When asked why the Ninth District program is better, she replied, “We have a really good team.”
And, she pointed out, the program savers taxpayers roughly $32,000 a year in food and other costs every time a defendant is kept out of prison.
“Drug Court’s my favorite thing that I do,” the judge said with uncharacteristic enthusiasm. “I get to interact more than in any other cases, one on one with these people. And you bond with them, you really do.”
As if to underscore that point, her discussions with drug court defendants were much less formal, much more congenial than in regular court, and every now and then she would declare herself “proud” of a particular defendant’s progress and hand him or he a $25 gift certificate from City Market as what Lynch terms “an incentive” to keep improving.
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