Decades ago, as a nation, we declared a war on drugs. We are reminded every day that the war has not yet been won. We continue to seek what might be the answer. We have tried simply saying “no.” We have seen our prison population explode in numbers. For many who get caught up in drugs, it seems to control the rest of the days of their lives. How do we bring real change to our community and to the lives of those struggling with addiction?
Many of the cases in our courts are related to drugs and addiction. The old approach was to arrest and punish the guilty party, only to see them return to their old addiction. And when they break the law again, they return to court to begin the cycle again. You might call this a revolving door.
There is a program here In Newton County that is making progress on breaking this cycle. It is the Newton County Adult Felony Drug Court. Under the leadership of Judge Ken Wynne, this court seek to enhance public safety by reducing crime and breaking the cycle of repeating in the life of those who go through the program. The Court’s mission statement says the goal is to do this through, “a comprehensive system of treatment, incentives, and sanctions for eligible drug dependent offenders.”
A few weeks ago, I witnessed what I would call five victories in the “War on Drugs” at the Newton Country Judicial Center. I attended the most recent graduation for those who have completed the year and half long program that hopefully brings lasting changes to their lives. This was the sixth class to graduate from the program since it began on February 1, 2013.
Those who enter this program of the court do so on a voluntary basis as an alternate to being sentenced. If they are successful in the program their obligation to the court is met. The Court seeks to bring change to the lives of those participating through a multi facet approach.
Each participant pays a fee to help offset the cost of the program. They participate in meetings each week that include group therapy and a meeting of a 12-step program. The goal is to be freed of the burden of addiction. This will enable them to the strength to continue as contributing members of our community.
In leading the court, Judge Wynne is assisted by Wes Long, Court Coordinator and Greg Chapman, Case Manager. Joining them from the District Attorney’s Office is Candice Branche; from the Public Defender’s Office, Teri Doepke; from the Probation Office, Travis Bell; and form the Newton Country Sheriff’s Office, Veronica Williams and Mike Cunningham. Also a part of the team from View Point Health is JoAnn Cooper, Gina Hutto, Damen Kellam, and Barbara Moorer.
I am reminded of an old Russian Proverb that President Ronald Reagan used when negotiating with the Soviet Union about nuclear weapons, “Trust but verify.” If the lives of those under the direction of the court are going to change they have to be free drugs and alcohol. There are several components of the program to verify that this is so. Participants have a curfew to be in each night, and this curfew is subject to checks by law enforcement officers. They are subject to random drug and alcohol screenings. They call in early each day to see if they are to report for a screening. One more part of verifying that they are staying free of drugs and alcohol is random searches of their residences and automobiles. “Trust but verify.”
Recently, I joined the Advisory Board for this Drug Court. I have not only been impressed with the resources and agencies that have been brought together to join in the effort, but how each participant is treated. In so many places in our world, we are only a number or perhaps a name. But as I have observed sessions of the court and sat in on staff meetings, I have noticed how Judge Wynne and the entire staff knows each participant and what is unique in their case. This awareness not only brings compassion to each participant, but makes sure the right steps are taken to facilitate lasting change in their lives.
For the five persons whose success in completing the program we celebrated at the sixth commencement in April, I think we see the key to solving the “revolving door” in so many other cases.
While we must continue to try to keep drugs off our streets, decades of trying prove we will never be fully successful. We also know that it is not simply a matter of will power for those caught in the vice of addiction. Those struggling need help from the community, their friends, and their family if they are to break the chains of addition. The only way to make change is to create real change in the lives of those addicted. When you control the desire, you are indeed celebrating a true victory.
B. Wiley Stephens is a retired United Methodist Minister and author who now resides in Covington.