Drug courts can use a strict nexus between crime and punishment to offer addicts a chance to see the light
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Monday morning comes like a promise to Ole Brook, a neighborhood where crape myrtle petals color sidewalks and American flags hang from pedigreed homes.
At precisely 7:30 Judge Michael Taylor exits one of its Greek Revival standouts. He skirts past temporary supports on the porch—his current restoration project on a house that requires many—and heads to a portico where a pickup truck with government tags waits, idling. Sliding across the seat, the judge reaches for the radio knob. Better to make use of the miles talking shop with his driver, John Douglas, than listen to music.
At first glance, a productive Taylor-Douglas alliance looks unlikely. Douglas, 47, wears Ropers, a goatee, and a sunburn picked up during a saltwater fishing trip. The judge is a grandfather who shared law school professors with John Grisham. But they bring their blend of legal knowledge and street smarts to their work. One wields a gavel, the other grace, the kind that comes with conditions and a stack of notarized papers. Together they oversee Taylor’s biggest restoration project, the Mississippi 14th Circuit’s drug court, and today, like most Mondays, the pair will “ride the circuit,” visiting three courthouses in three counties.
But this is no ordinary Monday. Thirty-seven participants have met the drug court’s requirements and are set to walk in annual graduation ceremonies—and hopeful long-term sobriety.
The nation’s first drug court convened in Miami-Dade County, Fla., in 1989, and by the turn of the century, similar startups across the country were collectively graduating 17,000 participants a year. Today drug courts have a foothold in every state. Most are give-and-take propositions offering nonviolent felony offenders a choice between jail sentences and long-term drug treatment.
With a national completion rate of 59 percent, drug courts more than triple those achieved by some private treatment facilities. What makes the difference? Proponents say it’s the combination of supervision, screening, and work requirements that drug courts are uniquely positioned to offer. Taylor and Douglas don’t disagree, but they think the biggest factor may be another key they hold. To the jail.
“There needs to be a therapeutic element. There needs to be a restorative element. But no private treatment works as well as drug court because no private treatment has a jail,” contends Taylor, who at 57 has been on a bench since Bill Clinton was president. “They should be used carefully and sparingly, but jails work to change human behavior.”
Heather Rice-Minus, a senior vice president at Prison Fellowship, agrees: “Drug courts have not only the carrot, but the stick. Psychologywise, both of those things play a role in motivating people.”
AMERICA RECORDED ITS HIGHEST NUMBER of overdose deaths in a single year in 2020: more than 93,000. Pandemic isolation likely played a part and underscored what drug courts have been demonstrating for 30 years—it takes a village to recover an addict. In Mississippi’s 14th Circuit, drug court employs five full-time workers, from parole officers to a counselor who helps participants find and keep jobs. A contracted psychologist determines if offenders have program potential. Sheriffs, court reporters, and even Taylor, whose main role is circuit court judge, perform drug court responsibilities as unpaid add-ons.
Taylor’s district is “almost the size of Rhode Island, but there’s no Starbucks,” he laughs. Yes, 50 miles stretch between the county seat and a signature caramel macchiato, but Big City’s fentanyl found its way to these rural parts. Heroin hitched in too.
For 10 years John Douglas had a front-row view of that infiltration as he sat in unmarked cars, surveilling drug deals. He believed God called him to his work as a narcotics agent, and when in 2011 the judge suggested Douglas become his drug court coordinator, he told him as much. Taylor, an every-Sunday sort of Presbyterian, didn’t balk. “I said, ‘By all means, do what God called you to do. But if you ever get tired of laying on the ground getting bitten by fire ants while you watch a crack house, come see me.’” Two days later, Douglas contacted Taylor. He’d had a fire ant experience they now refer to as an Old Testament–like confirmation.
The law officer is quick to correct the notion he changed sides: “Narcotics agents want to help people as much as drug court staff do. We need both.”
As they drive toward a waiting courtroom, Douglas reminds the judge one of the graduates wants some mic time during the ceremony. After eight years in a program that averages four, Rachel Williams has something to say.
IF SUBSTANCE ABUSE RECOVERY had a poster child, Williams would be in the running. She’s the product of parents who had a thing for PCP and a school crowd that smoked pot during lunch. By 10th grade, she dropped out. By age 22 she had a thousands-of-dollars-a-month cocaine habit. Along the way, Williams gave birth to three children, none of whom authorities allowed her to raise. When she landed a forgery charge, arresting officers recognized Williams from previous encounters. They also recognized her underlying problem.
For a while, Williams was a model drug court participant. She passed drug tests, changed her environment, attended required group therapy sessions, showed up for her shifts at Sonic. But a 2017 fall into credit card fraud left her supervisors with a tough decision: Drop her or give her a second chance? They added three more years to her treatment time. Williams stayed the course and became an eight-year drug court anomaly.
Taylor believes immediate, sure sanctions like that are critical: “Treatment courts are sometimes accused of being hug-a-thug programs, but we have objective criteria. If you fail a drug test, you get three weekends in jail. If three weekends didn’t work, you get five. If you’re late to court or don’t bring your meeting sheet, you get community service.”
He applies punishment almost mechanically, and that’s the first thing participants notice: “We do sanctions in open court, and they realize it’s a fair deal. And then if somebody does something that gets them finally kicked out of drug court and sent to prison, they’re all sitting there watching that, too.”
Graduations are the high-water mark of that intentional practice. Standing before her peers, Williams praises drug court for doing what nothing else could do for her—help her stay sober. Now she’s married, works as a traveling caregiver, and enjoys mended relationships with a sister she stole from and a daughter she gave up.
“It’s been eight years, five months, and a day since I’ve done any drugs,” she says, flashing a wide grin at rookie participants and fellow graduates alike. She’s sporting a new hair color along with fake nails and false eyelashes, but for this room of recovering addicts, she’s as real as it gets. Maybe they can do this thing after all.
Williams and everyone else in attendance know the stakes are high. Weeks earlier a drug court candidate was going through the hoops, preparing for admittance, when Taylor warned him not to use that night. The judge knew from his record he was a heroin addict.
The next day, the young man missed his first mandatory screening. He had died from an overdose that morning. “We have to remind attorneys and ourselves how time sensitive this is and how important it is to not have the usual bureaucratic delays,” Taylor said.
TO BE CONSIDERED FOR THE JUDGE’S FED-UP (Fostering an End to Drug Use Problems) drug court program, offenders must obtain his recommendation, as well as one from both the district attorney’s office and the arresting law enforcement agency. They undergo an evaluation to verify addiction, then plead guilty to their crime, although adjudication is put on ice. Finally, they agree to follow 23 rules, such as paying fines and permitting searches of their homes and vehicles.
Taylor’s drug court takes four phases, each granting increased autonomy as participants learn to manage their recovery. Taylor faces budgetary pressures to run a shorter program like some other states, but studies show graduates of a three-year drug court stand a much better chance of lifelong recovery. “An 18-month program looks great on paper and works—for 18 months. People we really care about keeping sober, like physicians, judges, and nurses, have five-year programs.”
Donavan Koehler, 22, understands that, but three years in, he’s wondering when he can get on with his life. Or rather, get it started.
Waiting outside the Pike County Courthouse in Magnolia, Miss., Koehler describes a high-school hallucinogen addiction bad enough to have him digging in cow pastures for psilocybin mushrooms. It later led to his arrest in the first psychedelic drug bust the county had seen in decades—a notoriety that shames him still today—and Koehler remembers he couldn’t get out of jail and into drug court fast enough. “It was terrible. Jail is nothing like the TikTok videos going around,” he says.
The threat of going back to a cell helped Koehler clear his mind and stay on the drug court straight and narrow. Now he says he’s ready to move on: “I’ve passed my screenings and paid nearly $10,000 in fines and fees, but I can’t pursue a real career until I get my record cleared.”
Like all participants, Koehler pays monthly fees to be enrolled in drug court. The state funds 75 percent of the cost to administer Taylor’s program to 200 people. With 240 currently on their rolls, though, keeping it funded is a stretch.
But statistics indicate spending more on abuse prevention could save money down the road. In the United States, substance abuse comes with an annual $600 billion price tag. Treating an addiction for a year costs a fifth of an equal amount of prison time. A Department of Justice study found that 72 percent of drug court graduates have no arrests at the two-year mark.
But funding may not be drug courts’ biggest challenge. Some say addiction is a public health problem, not a criminal justice problem. A 2016 United Nations General Assembly Special Session on Drugs recognized addiction as a “complex, multifactorial health disorder characterized by a chronic and relapsing nature” rather than behavior to be addressed punitively. The World Psychiatric Association hailed that change from a criminal justice mentality to a public health approach.
Taylor admits he leans libertarian on some issues, but not this one: “Not everyone works in Silicon Valley and likes to use a little cocaine now and then. There are people whose lives are devastated by this, whose childhoods were devastated by this.”
The Biden-Harris administration drug policy priorities also reflect new views. In August, the Office of National Drug Control Policy announced $2.5 million to support the establishment of state-level model legislation to expand access to harm reduction services such as syringe service programs. This comes after the COVID-19 stimulus package’s $30 million toward the same effort. Another of their top concerns? Stigma reduction for substance use disorder.
Using the word disorder rather than abuse is evidence of changing perceptions, and even the drug court camp isn’t immune. The homepage of the National Association of Drug Court Professionals reflects the same terminology.
Taylor and Douglas, however, possess a different vocabulary. Words like sin. Depravity. Repentance. Restitution. When they can, they grasp opportunities to share the gospel with drug court participants. But that can get complicated: “We have to be careful to not use the office wrongly,” Taylor said. “But we also have the responsibility to give them the right answer. There is a huge danger of creating the impression that sobriety and salvation are the same. We emphasize that drug court is temporary, but other things last.”
In December, Taylor sends a personal Christmas letter to each participant, backed up by a courtroom talk. Last year’s version referred to Christ’s birthplace: “God knew we couldn’t clean up or get our act together. The stable says the opposite. It says, ‘I will come into your mess to get you out of it.’”
David Ludington, CEO of Christian Rehab Network, has spent 42 years working with substance abusers. He has a firm belief about recovery: “A personal relationship with God—that’s the only thing that’s going to solve somebody’s addiction. Period.”
Drug courts throughout the country offer Christian treatment facilities as an option for treatment, but state and federal laws limit what they can do. “They don’t want to see Christianity in treatment,” Ludington said. “They don’t mind seeing ‘faith-based’ or the look-alike, but not straight-out Christian.”
Another problem with Christian treatment is paying for it. Securing medical staff and screening equipment is expensive business, and Ludington is frank: “People need an insurance policy that covers treatment. Otherwise, it’s too costly—$35,000 for a 90-day stay—and we just don’t have enough funding from churches to help.”
BACK AT THE CEREMONY, the crowd applauds politely as Douglas awards diplomas. But things get emotional when they hear an announcement about signed expungement orders. Graduates weep, cheer, slap backs, and wipe trails of mascara running down their faces. The guilty pleas that got them there are gone, as well as any possible incarceration because of them.
Watching the scene over his reading glasses, Taylor remembers that the guy on the front row used to live in a dog kennel. The one in the back is a prominent business owner’s kid. The lady over there is a nurse.
“The most offensive thing about addiction is seeing people lose their dignity. Addicts are image bearers. The Christian response should be to restore that dignity,” he says. “We know where grace comes from, and it’s not a drug court program, but the first thing is getting a person sober. Then they can hear, they can see, they can respond.”
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