By Mark Powell
A Last Chance for Hope
“Tell me More.”
Those words led to a change in the way people who use drugs are treated in court in one West Virginia jurisdiction.
More than a decade ago, Circuit Judge William Thompson was frustrated. He sought election to the bench because he wanted to help people. As West Virginia’s addiction crisis worsened, he watched while more and more people in his hometown of Madison (“Gateway to the Coalfields”) and Boone County were sent to jail. These were his neighbors, people he had grown up with, and sometimes even friends. Incarceration wasn’t giving them the help they needed, the help he wanted to provide. “What we were doing then wasn’t working,” he remembers. So, he began looking for alternatives.
Eventually, he learned about a special drug court in Reno, Nevada that was producing results. “Well, tell me more about it,” he said. Judge Thompson liked what he heard and volunteered to get the ball rolling.
In 2008, Drug Court for the 25th Judicial Circuit began operating, providing a new option for defendants in Boone and parts of nearby Lincoln Counties.
Starting from scratch was followed by a learning curve. “The program has evolved with time,” Judge Thompson says. “We got better at what we do.”
What they do is give people accused of certain drug-related offenses an alternative to doing time.
Participants must first personally appear before Judge Thompson and tell him their story. Honesty is rewarded; lying is punished. They’re evaluated (psychological tests, literacy tests, and so on). Then they meet for the next 18 months. As long as they are making progress, they stay out of jail.
The program operates in several phases. As Judge Thompson explains, “First, we bring them in and get them off of substances. We expect relapses along the way. Then we teach them recovery skills and assist them with family and parenting, finding and keeping a job, and so on. Next comes the maintenance phase, where they focus on living substance-free for an extended period. Finally, they complete the program. We make a big deal out of program completion.”
Judge Thompson said over time, organizers discovered a fourth phase was necessary. “We were getting people through the program, but too many of them were relapsing. So, we realized aftercare was needed.” A former participant now serves as a recovery coach. During aftercare, participants are on probation and drug testing is required. “It really helps knowing someone is checking up on them,” Judge Thompsons noted.
There are several requirements for being accepted into the program. Participants must be local residents. Their crime must be related to their substance use disorder. They enter the program postplea; there’s no plea agreement. No one charged with a violent felony is allowed in. Finally, the prosecutor must refer each participant. They must pay a $700 fee (paid by program phase, with payment options available).
As was the case in Nevada, the Boone County Drug Court is producing results. Of approximately 150 people who have graduated from the program, about five percent have relapsed. (A relapse is defined as a felony arrest within three years of completing the program.)
Besides improving individual lives, Drug Court also saves Boone County taxpayers money. It costs $50 a day to incarcerate an inmate. Fewer people doing time means lower jail expenses.
The best part of the program, according to Judge Thompson, is the personal relationship he develops with participants. “I’m seeing them on the worst day of their lives.” But even at that low point, there’s still an opportunity to turn things around. “I remember one young lady. She’d got caught up with a bad crowd and was about 30 seconds away from spending several years in prison when suddenly, she broke. She entered the program, completed Drug Court, got an associate’s degree, then her bachelors, and then her masters. She now works as a counselor.”
With a lot of hard work, Judge Thompson realized his dream of helping more people in his community.
Boone County Drug Court was a featured award winner in the 2019 Innovation Now project of the Addiction Policy Forum.
J. Mark Powell is an author, former network journalist, and veteran communications expert.