What You Need to Know About Drug Court and Addiction

Unless you've been living under a rock for the last couple of decades, you know that alcohol and drug addiction have reached epidemic proportions. Jailing addicts will not get us out of the crisis. Drug Court offers an alternative to incarceration for addicts convicted of nonviolent crimes as a result of their addiction. 

My son is one of those addicts. 

I shared our story of our son, Jason's, heroin addiction, this 2018 post. I had no idea how much of an impact that post would have on so many readers. We have learned many things during our almost twelve-year journey through our son's heroin addiction.

I'm thrilled to report that at the end of May, Jason will be sober for two years. It's a remarkable accomplishment. 

Factors in Recovery

There are two critical factors in his recovery.

  1. He will tell you the number one reason for his success in staying sober is turning his life over to God.
  2. The second factor is his participation in the Fairfax County, Virginia drug court program

Criminal Court

As you might expect, drug courts are controversial. Why? For decades, the “just say no” movement, which started with Nancy Reagan in the eighties, and the tough on crime initiatives from the 1990s have shaped society's attitudes toward addiction.

Incarceration vs. Treatment

Viewed as a criminal matter, the solution offered to the problem was a prison sentence. There's a very logical reason for that on the surface. When addiction takes over a person's life, they need money to get their drug of choice. Depending on the drug, the cost can be high. The longer the addiction lasts, the more of the drug they need. 

Job loss often comes with addiction. When an addict loses income, they don't lose the need for their drug. Hence, they need to find other ways to get money for their drug of choice. In Jason's case, the crime was theft. He would steal items from various retail stores to sell to get money to satisfy his addiction.

In his case, he was not a very good thief (though he disputes that 😀). During his twelve years of active addiction, he amassed a ton of criminal charges, mostly for grand larceny. At the time, grand larceny felony charges came with theft of $200. That amount is now $500. Had it been $500 back then, most of the theft charges would have been misdemeanors.

Nonviolent crimes often accompany someone in active addiction. Here's the problem – it's easy to continue your addiction in prison. Does that surprise you? It surprised us too. But it's a fact. Depending on the prison, drugs are readily available. Be it county jails, state, or federal prisons; it's relatively easy to find your drug.

Science of Addiction

Science tells us addiction is a disease. If you're not convinced, I encourage you to learn from someone who knows. 

Dr. Kevin McCauley is a surgeon who became addicted to prescription painkillers after surgery. He decided if he was going to beat his addiction, he needed to take a scientific approach. The result – Dr. Kevin McCauley – Pleasure Unwoven. In this video series, Dr. McCauley takes you on his journey of discovery about addiction. Near the end of the series, he asks a couple of penetrating questions. I'll paraphrase the questions:

What kind of society do we want to be? One that tries to jail our way out of the disease of addiction? Or one that treats addicts as patients with a disease that requires treatment. 

Drug Court

Drug court represents an alternative to incarceration. Those in the tough on crime camp oppose drug courts. Their view is the traditional, “do the crime, do the time mantra. The problem with it is it doesn't work. If addicts can get drugs in prison (like anywhere else), it will be difficult for them to get better. In our experience with Jason's time in jail and the state prison, the treatment programs offered don't work.

Short Term vs. Long Term

First of all, they are short term, usually 30 – 90 days. Research shows that these short term treatments are highly ineffective in getting addicts sober. 

Detox is not short term treatment. Detox is a time that helps addicts get through the intense withdrawals and sickness that accompanies getting off the drug or alcohol. Called getting “dope sick,” Jason and other recovering addicts tell me that you'd almost rather die than go through this process. That's one of the main reasons it's so hard to quit. Addicts will do anything to avoid being dope sick—brain chemistry changes. The brain has a tremendous capacity to heal itself. But it takes time.

Short term treatments can teach addicts a lot about the disease of addiction and put them around people in the same situation. They usually include attendance at twelve-step meetings in the facility every day. That's a great start. But it's often not enough.

How Drug Court Works

Successful drug court programs, or any long term treatment options, have several common elements.

They are long term

In Fairfax County, the drug court program can last from fourteen to twenty-four months and has five phases.

They involve assessment

Addicts applying for drug court go through a rigid evaluation process and evaluation. Not everyone that applies gets approved. 

Residential treatment  

If the assessment determines the best course of action for treatment is an inpatient program, the court will place the addict in one of those facilities

Intensive Outpatient Program (IOP)

If the assessment determines inpatient is not necessary, the person enters an IOP. They still get intensive treatment, but it is outpatient. Fairfax County's IOP is three nights a week for three hours each night.

Counseling

Often, addiction includes mental illness. Called dual diagnosis, it makes addiction harder to treat. Anxiety and depression often are at the root cause of substance abuse. The assessment determines whether counseling is appropriate and the type of counseling to recommend.

Drug Testing

Drug court participants get regular random drug tests. Depending on the phase they're in, it could be twice a week. The tests decrease the longer they are in the program. 

Accountability

Participants are accountable to the judge, the prosecuting attorney, the probation officer, and the Community Service Board (CSB). The CSB does the assessment, recommends treatment, and manages any medication administered. 

Twelve-Step Program

Participants commit to regularly attending twelve-step programs, whether Alcoholics Anonymous (AA), Narcotics Anonymous (NA), or other similar programs. They know that building a network of sober friends is an integral part of recovery.

Medication

There is a new class of drugs to help addicts tackle the cravings and the desire to self medicate. Jason is on one of those drugs – Vivitrol. Vivitrol treatment involves a once a month shot. It works by blocking the receptacle in the brain that allows users to get high. In other words, if they use (alcohol or opioids), they won't get high. 

Housing and Job Help

One of the hardest parts of recovery is getting a job and finding housing. Employers participate in the drug court to offer participants employment and housing. 

Drug Court Success Rates

Drug courts are relatively new to the scene. Success rates are hard to find. The National Institute of Justice found the following results:

Lower recidivism. Using retrospective data, researchers in several studies found that drug courts reduced recidivism among program participants in contrast to comparable probationers. For example, one study found that within a two-year follow-up period, the felony re-arrest rate decreased from 40 percent before the drug court to 12 percent after the drug court started in one county, and the felony re-arrest rate decreased from 50 percent to 35 percent in another county. [1]

The article goes on to show evidence that drug courts also reduce the costs to the system versus the traditional incarceration for drug-related crimes. 

Factors for success include:

  • Proper assessment and treatment.
  • The role assumed by the judge and the nature of offender interactions with the judge.
  • Other variable influences, such as drug use trends, staff turnover, and resource allocation.

Fairfax County Drug Court

In my observation, the Fairfax County drug court delivery on all of these factors. Judge Penny Ascarate is the judge who pushed for drug court. Meet her in the video below.

Our son, Jason, was the first person approved for the county drug court program. While in the Fairfax County Adult Detention Center (ADC), he wrote his recovery program. That is the key to addicts having a successful recovery. Those who have and execute a plan have the highest success rate of recovery. The drug court was a part of Jason's plan. 

He had spent so much time in the ADC that he was on a first-name basis with many of the employees. From the guards to sheriff deputies to the court personnel, many knew him. They saw a change in him this time.

When he applied to get into the drug court, a representative of the court came to interview him. She spent over four hours with him. At the end of that time, she told him he'd be a perfect fit for the program. He entered the program in December 2018. 

How It Works

My wife, Cathy, and I attended Jason's first drug court appearance. It was unlike any of our other experiences in the court system over the years. When he went before Judge Ascarate, she told him she expected three things of him.

  1. Show up when you are required to be here.
  2. Do what we tell you to do.
  3. Don't lie to me.

Point number three could easily be point number one. Why? Addicts are skilled liars and manipulators. That's how they have survived their years of addiction. Every parent or family member of an addict knows all too well how good they are at this skill. 

Jason had already had a few clean drug tests. He was attending twelve-step meetings and looking for a sponsor. The judge listened and seemed pleased with what she heard. And then something happened that I can honestly say is something I would have never dreamed would happen in a criminal court. She even said as much. What was it? She applauded Jason and asked everyone in the court to do the same. That was the case for everyone who appeared that day. It was something like six or seven people at the time.

Encouragement vs. Punishment

The drug court is about support. It's about helping. There is an understanding that relapse is part of recovery. In criminal court, relapse usually means having your probation revoked and serving more jail time. At the very least, there may be a deal reached to reduce jail time. But make no mistake. Some kind of punishment administered.

I've heard of some judges in drug court who will put those who relapse in jail. That's usually for a weekend or something reasonably short.

Judge Ascaroti takes a different approach. She, along with her team, assess the situation and decide on a course of action that they believe will best help the person continue in his or her recovery. That may be inpatient treatment, counseling, drug therapy, or some combination. The judge tries not to send anyone back to jail. Offenders get every opportunity to do the right thing. But she has her limits. Lying and trying to deceive the court about what's going on are not tolerated. She has put people back in jail. 

However, if a person is putting out the effort and doing what the court askes of them, she and her team do everything in their power to try and help them get better. 

The Turning Point

There is one truth that I've come to know in my work with Parents of Addicted Loved Ones (PAL). If the addict isn't ready to get better, there is little to nothing anyone can do to help. All of us as parents try various things. I've never seen any of them work, for us or anybody else. The addicts have to want it. They have to reach the point where the pain of getting better seems less than the pain of staying where they are. 

Jason reached that point in May 2018 when he was back in jail. He had disappeared for almost eighteen months, with little to no contact with us. The police came to our door (once again), asking if we knew anything about where he was. We knew very little. They were at our house on a Friday and arrested him on the following Sunday. 

A Call from Jail

In a phone call to me shortly after his arrest, I completely lost it with him. It was like twelve years of frustration and anguish spewed out of my mouth. I was horrified after the call ended at how I reacted. As I thought about it, I realized that Jason was different. There were no excuses, no blaming something or somebody for his circumstances. He took my tirade with little comment. Of course, I didn't give him much of a chance. 

About a week or so later, I got a letter from him. It was handwritten (as all jailhouse letters are). First, he apologized for everything he'd put his mother and me through. Then he said he didn't want to live this way anymore; that he had turned his life over to God but needed help. He said, “Dad, I know you're a Godly man. I need you to teach me how to be a Godly man.” I was stunned. But I was all in to help him. 

Can He Be Trusted?

I'd heard similar things in the past, so I was cautious. Jason asked for a Bible. Specifically, he asked for a recovery Bible and workbook that was the companion to it. He asked me to send him any books I thought would help him. So, that's what I did. Over the next few months, I sent him probably a dozen or more books on faith, different Bible study resources, and books from Christian authors I'd read. He devoured every one of them.

Our phone conversations centered around things he'd read in these books. I knew he read them because of the questions he asked. That also told me he was serious about his recovery. 

It was several months before Cathy would talk to him. He understood and didn't push. Then one Saturday morning, he and I were talking on the phone with Cathy in the room. All of a sudden she said, “Give me the phone. I'm ready to talk to him.” She started after setting some pretty firm boundaries with him on communication. He accepted all of them and never violated any. The three of us now enjoy a relationship as a family that none of us ever thought possible. 

There Is Hope

The last two years have been among the best of our lives. We got our son back from the darkness of addiction. He is sober. He has a great job, a wonderful girlfriend, and newly revived faith in God that carries him through the obstacles of life without drugs. It's something Cathy and I prayed for most days for the eleven plus years he was in active addiction. 

Since September 2018, Cathy and I have been facilitators of a weekly meeting of parents of addicted loved ones. The Pal Group has been a blessing to Cathy and me. It is a blessing to parents dealing with sons and daughters battling addiction. Parents often go through this journey alone. Being able to talk to other parents who understand what they are living with offers comfort and support, most of us never thought we'd find.

It's hard to find hope in addiction. We, like most other parents in our group, prepare for the worst. For parents of addicts, that's losing their son or daughter to an overdose. Or worse, losing them to a drug deal gone bad. You stay up at night or wake up in the middle of the night with those dark thoughts in your mind. We've lived it. So have every other parent with a son or daughter battling this disease. And yes, folks. Science confirms addiction is a disease. Our experience confirms that too. I hope our story and the evidence provided in it will help anyone who feels otherwise.

Final Thoughts

Trust me when I say this. When an addict tells you they want to quit, they mean it. They often just can't find a way to do it. Dope sickness is real. An active addict is a slave to their drug. It's a horrible life; they can't seem to find their way out of living that life. They wake up every day wondering how they're going to get enough of what they need to get through the day. It trumps every other thing in life. Try to imagine living like that. Of course, we can't. That's what makes it so hard to understand and accept. It doesn't make any sense. Here's the thing. It doesn't make sense to them either.

Drug court offers one of the best long term solutions for addicts caught in the criminal justice system due to crimes birthed out of their addiction. There are strict requirements to enter the program, and strict requirements to stay in it. Of the dozen or so people who have started the local drug court program, only Jason and one other person have made it to the end. It was hard work. There were many obstacles along the way. But those who do the work get rewarded in the end. The most important reward is their sobriety.

Let me end with the questions that Kevin McCauley asked.

What kind of society do we want to be? One that tries to jail our way out of the disease of addiction? Or one that treats addicts as patients with a disease that requires treatment. 

I hope we choose the latter.

The Addict's Mom
In the Rooms
Help for Veterans
Speakman Coaching Resources
Dr. Kevin McCauley – Pleasure Unwoven



Nar-Anon



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