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Effective Compassion: The court of second chances - S3.E3

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WORLD Radio - Effective Compassion: The court of second chances - S3.E3

Drug court gives addicts the opportunity to stay out of jail and make a fresh start


Rachel Williams hugs drug court coordinator John Douglas during her graduation ceremony. Photo by Kim Henderson

DOUGLAS: I don't know anybody that hasn't been affected by drug addiction. Not anyone, not anyone. . . . Everybody you talk to, they can give you a story of somebody that they've been close to that's been affected by it, or they've been personally affected by it.

KIM HENDERSON, SENIOR CORRESPONDENT: That’s John Douglas. He gets passionate when he talks about drug addiction.

DOUGLAS: We get all walks of life. People that have great families. People that have support systems. And then we have people that are homeless. They come here, and they’re living in their truck.

Douglas has had a long career in law enforcement, every bit of it involving drugs. Keeping them off the streets. Catching dealers. And now, rehabilitating addicts through something called drug court.

From WORLD Radio and the creative team that brings you The World and Everything in It, this is Effective Compassion.

I’m Kim Henderson.

UNDERWRITER SPOT
Support Effective Compassion today at wng.org/donate. Additional support comes from World Help, a Christian humanitarian organization working to deliver food and Bibles to starving, persecuted Christians in North Korea, one of the most dangerous nations for Christians. A gift of $20 sends a Bible and a week's worth of food to a North Korean brother or sister. More at worldhelp.net/podcast.

If the latest studies are true, nearly half of all prisoners sitting in federal cells—46 percent of them—are behind bars because they committed drug-related offenses. And for many of them, breaking the law started with addiction.

While many Christian ministries deal with drug abuse recovery, some of the best help available to addicts today comes through a brush with the law. Just enough brush to keep them out of the prison cycle.

And though it may come as a surprise, Christians are making a difference here, too —in this secular space—right here in line at the 14th Circuit Drug Court in McComb, Mississippi.

Participants line up for random drug tests at the 14th Circuit Drug Court in McComb, Mississippi.

Participants line up for random drug tests at the 14th Circuit Drug Court in McComb, Mississippi. Photo by Kim Henderson

MAN: I was, you know, using marijuana heavily . . .

MAN: I was addicted to methamphetamines.

WOMAN: Crystal meth.

RACHEL: After she was born, that’s when I got introduced to crack cocaine.

MAN: My addiction was marijauna and hallucinogenic drugs—mushrooms, acid, LSD, and dimethyltryptamine was the last one.

WOMAN: Started out with pain pills years ago, and then ended up with meth. . . I was using a needle and shooting up, hiding it from everyone . . . 

And that’s pretty much the story for most drug court participants, whether they’re in Alaska or Alabama.

They were addicted, tried to hide it, and got caught.

Late last year, news reports showed just how serious our nation’s drug abuse problem is.

REPORTER: Tonight, a grim statistic. One American is dying from a drug overdose every five minutes . . .

According to the CDC, it was a record breaking year, with more than 100,000 lives lost from April 2020 to April 2021. To put that in perspective, that’s nearly three times the number of deaths due to traffic accidents. But beyond breaking national records, those deaths broke hearts as their loved ones were left to pick up the pieces. 

And it’s not just families who suffer the consequences of addiction. Communities suffer, too. They have to deal with what comes part and parcel with illegal drugs—unemployment, child neglect, school dropout, divorce, embezzlement, burglary, auto theft, murder.

Donovan Koehler

Donovan Koehler Photo by Kim Henderson

Donovan Koehler never pictured himself as a criminal. He was in high school. Just thought he was having fun when he got into hallucinogenic drugs. Psilocybin mushrooms, to be precise.

DONOVAN: You can go out into any normal cow field around here that’s got this kind of climate and you can find it. Whenever you’re in that kind of addiction, it doesn’t matter where it comes from or where it is. You’re going to find a way to get it.

But before long, his reason for doing drugs changed.

DONOVAN: At first it was to fit in with friends in high school . . . it became more of . . . instead of a fun thing, it became a maintenance thing, you know. And it came to the point that I was using drugs to cope with my life problems . . .

Then Koehler’s addiction turned him into someone he didn’t recognize.

DONOVAN: There’s been so many things that I’ve done that I regret doing from drugs and addiction, you know. From stealing from family members, getting over on friends, telling people I was having a harder time than I was just to get money to get high.

Koehler’s addiction also took him somewhere he thought he’d never go. Jail. He was addicted to a ’70s era psychedelic drug when he was given an ’80s era option. Let me explain.

Drug courts came about in the 1980s, back when the crack cocaine epidemic fueled such a social and criminal crisis that courts couldn’t keep up. Neither could jails.

DRUG RELATED NEWS COVERAGE

Necessity led to invention, and the nation’s first drug court convened in Miami-Dade County, Florida.

By 2000, 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 that give non-violent felony offenders a choice: Go to jail or go into long-term drug treatment.

Some drug abusers still opt for incarceration over drug courts’ strict monitoring.

But some offenders, like Donovan Koehler, embrace getting a second chance. He can’t imagine choosing another option.

DONOVAN: I could have been charged anywhere between 16 and 15 years in a federal penitentiary and anywhere between $250,000 to a $1 million dollars in fines. Yep.

Koehler has paid off a required portion of his fines as part of his drug court experience. And he’s served time, too, as a participant. Three years so far.

You see, drug court is really a program, not a place. And it officially leverages two of the components of effective compassion...it’s challenging and personal. Unofficially, many drug court systems are run by people who also leverage the third component: spiritual.

Drug courts vary in how they operate, but here in the 14th circuit, the drill goes like this.

An addict gets arrested for a non-violent felony. They offer the offender the chance to get out of jail and get treatment through drug court. They’ll have to work a job, pay their fines, attend weekly court dates, and take part in group therapy. But they get to stay out of jail while they’re doing it. And if they complete the four treatment phases, their felony will be expunged. In the best cases, participants kick their habits. Long term sobriety is the goal.

SOUND: Thursday, June 3, Phase 2 and 3 will test . . .

Drug courts’ strict monitoring includes random drug testing. Every day at 4 o’clock—truly every day—participants in Mississippi’s 14th Circuit Drug Court listen to a recorded message. It tells them if they must report for a drug test that evening.

This night, it’s a go. Participants arrive at the office and prepare to give urine samples.

AMBI: PRINTING

Each person gets a printed barcode to place on a vial, then women head toward one bathroom. Men another.

Probation Officer Willie Dunbar talks to drug court participants as they stand in line.

Probation Officer Willie Dunbar talks to drug court participants as they stand in line. Photo by Kim Henderson

AMBI: WRITING ON BOARD

Probation officers like Willie Dunbar keep the line moving. He’s also writing on a white board as they file through.

WILLIE: The quote today is “Focus on the moment, not the history.” Basically saying take it one day at a time. Be clean and sober today. That’s all that matters.

And that’s a big part of the job for drug court officers. They don’t just wear guns, they wear smiles. They offer encouragement and pats on the back. And many of the officers in the 14th Circuit do it in the name of Christ, according to Drug Court Coordinator John Douglas.

Drug court coordinator John Douglas talks to participants.

Drug court coordinator John Douglas talks to participants. Photo by Kim Henderson

DOUGLAS: When the participants figure it out, they say, “Okay, you're not out to get me, so why are you doing this?” And you go, “To see you get better” . . . It’s the love of God that they have in their hearts, and they’re just showing it. It’s rewarding, and it’s tough.

Pandemic isolation contributed to last year’s record-breaking overdose numbers, underscoring what drug courts have been demonstrating for 30 years—it takes a village to recover an addict.

Douglas’s team includes 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 the judge perform drug court responsibilities as unpaid add-ons.

It’s a very determined effort to help addicts. To make drug love become drug hate.

One of Douglas’s biggest roles is overseeing the drug tests.

DOUGLAS: This system of racks over here with the test tubes advances the sample, and then there's a barcode reader . . .

They have an impressive machine that hums and rattles and performs close to 10,000 drug test panels each month. They’ll test for about 10 drugs tonight, and within 15 minutes, they’ll know if any samples test “hot.”

The machine alone costs about a quarter of a million dollars new. Helping someone beat a drug addiction takes money, time, and human resources. Douglas points out the stakes are incredibly high. Recently he was processing a young man to begin drug court the next day.

DOUGLAS: He got a stimulus check, and that night he cashed that check and he went and spent it on heroin and he overdosed and he died. And he never got to be in drug court.

Douglas acknowledges the drug problem is epidemic. Their program is funded for 200 participants. They're currently running at 120 percent capacity.

Rachel Williams is on their rolls.

WILLIAMS: Marijuana is a gateway drug. It leads you to other drugs, more, you know, more harder drugs.

That’s exactly what happened to Williams. If substance abuse recovery had a poster child, she’d be in the running. Williams is the product of parents who had a thing for PCP. She hung out with a school crowd that smoked pot during lunch. By 10th grade, she dropped out.

WILLIAMS: I did my first hard drug when I was 19—cocaine. [08:53] I did that in a closet with my best friend who was also a drug addict, had done it for years, you know? And she said, “Here, try this. It won't hurt you.” I was like, “Okay, you know?” And so I did. And that was it.

Williams was hooked. By age 20 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. But her trajectory changed when she landed a forgery charge. Arresting officers recognized Williams from previous encounters. They also recognized her underlying problem. They offered her drug court.

Judge Mike Taylor meets with a drug court participant.

Judge Mike Taylor meets with a drug court participant. Photo by Kim Henderson

BAILIFF: All rise. The drug court of Lincoln County is now in session . . .

On Monday mornings, participants like Williams come to their local courthouse for a one-on-one with Judge Mike Taylor. He’s the head of the 14th Circuit’s drug program. Ten years ago he asked Douglas to leave his work as a narcotics agent to become his drug court coordinator.

]TAYLOR: John said, “Well, I like what I'm doing. I feel like I'm called to do what I'm doing.”

The judge backed off. He told Douglas to do what he felt called to do.

TAYLOR: “I just figured at some point, I think you're right for this job. And at some point I figured you’re going to get tired of hiding out, laying on the ground, getting bit by fire ants, watching a crack house. And when you do, call me.

A couple days later Douglas was on a stake out. He got bit by fire ants. He decided to call the judge.

And according to John, it was kind of an Old Testament type thing . . .”

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. And their faith.

At 57, Taylor has been on a bench since Bill Clinton was president. But his work in the 14th Circuit’s drug court is at the heart of his career.

TAYLOR: I would have never thought that I would be shepherding drug addicts and loving it . . . and enjoying their successes.

He thinks the successes are related to the advantage drug courts have that private rehab facilities don’t.

TAYLOR: No private treatment works as well as drug court because no private treatment has a jail. Jails work. I mean, there's a reason why we have them . . . they should be used carefully and sparingly, but they work to change human behavior.

Taylor says some detractors refer to drug courts as hug-a-thug programs. He’s careful to balance compassion and firmness.

TAYLOR: Part of it is we have, you know, objective criteria. You fail the test, you get three weekends in jail. Three weekends didn't work, you get five weekends.

And if they don't bring their meeting sheet from a counseling session or they're late to court, they get four hours community service. Ta ylor says the rules are applied almost mechanically. And that’s important, because everybody is watching. They do sanctions in open court.

TAYLOR: There are people in there that John grew up with. There are people in there that I taught there in third grade Sunday school. There are people in there that played on my little league teams. So they're all looking and they realize . . . it's a fair deal.

It’s also important for participants to see something else up close: What happens if they fail.

TAYLOR: If somebody does something that gets them finally kicked out of drug court and sent to prison, they're all sitting there watching that. So they're always the audience and that's part of the dynamic . . . I'm going to get what I earn . . . the fact that it's all public and it's all played out right there in front of them, um, is, is huge to get their buy-in.

During Monday morning court appearances, participants have to prove they’re attending an approved form of therapy. That they’re working a job, passing their drug tests, and fulfilling other program requirements.

A woman approaches the bench, and the judge asks if she’s paid her fines. In another instance, the judge gives praise where praise is due.

JUDGE: Mr. Middleton made nine months clean. Let’s give him a hand . . . (applause)

Another participant makes some progress.

JUDGE: Mrs. Moore is moving to Phase 3 . . . (applause)

Then a probation officer gives a bad report. A participant has failed a drug test. Again. The judge isn’t happy.

JUDGE: You’re not changing fast enough to satisfy the requirements of this program . . .

To be considered for Taylor’s program, offenders must obtain his recommendation, as well as one from both the district attorney’s office and the arresting law enforcement agency. Then they undergo an evaluation to verify they have an addiction. After that, they plead guilty to their crime, even though adjudication is put on ice. Finally, they agree to follow 23 rules, such as paying fines and permitting searches of their homes and vehicles.

Participants average about four years in this program. It’s done in four phases, each granting increased autonomy as participants learn to manage their recovery. Taylor faces pressures to run a shorter program like some other states.

Judge Mike Taylor

Judge Mike Taylor Photo by Kim Henderson

TAYLOR: I had somebody tell me one time, “Well, 18-month programs have a higher success rate.” Well, a 12-hour program would have an even higher success rate . . . The question is what's the best for long-term sobriety, and the best program for that is five years. Now, the gains between three and five are not that great. Uh, and that's an extra constraint on these people because their lives are, are, are, are severely impacted by drug court.

So it’s a three-year minimum in Taylor’s court. He thinks the length of treatment is critical.

TAYLOR: If all we do is keep them sober for 18 months or two years, that's a good thing. That's not a bad thing. That's a huge accomplishment. But we're right back where we started. And what this is designed to do is to break that cycle.

Breaking the cycle is tough work. Just ask Wanda Russell. She was in law school when she got addicted to painkillers. That brought her to drug court the first time. Now, 10 years later, she’s back again.

RUSSELL: That I was young. And I don't think I was really ready to commit, you know. I thought I could dabble with other things. I thought I wasn't just a true addict.

But she was. The college graduate with her whole life in front of her hit rock bottom.

RUSSELL: Addiction does not care where you've been or who you are, where you came from . . . [04:53] By the end, you know, I was using a needle, shooting. I mean, hiding it from everyone, trying to still maintain this image. But the reality of it was, I was no different than any other addict out there.

This time in, Russell is fully engaged. She’s passing drug tests, and having that proof of long-term sobriety enabled her to regain custody of her children. She’s also working hard as a management trainee at a local chicken plant.

RUSSELL: It's very satisfying. It's kind of like drug court. The more work you put into it, you know, the more you get out of it. And same thing with now. I'm actually working hard, but at the end of the week, you know, I earned what I've got, and I have more respect for myself . . .

Russell is in her third year of drug court, but she had a violation recently. She had to move back a phase. What does she think about the length of treatment in the 14th Circuit?

RUSSELL: Three years is a great starting point. But for real sobriety—like I said, I've even relapsed. It was just a one time use. But, you know, addiction is a lifelong struggle . . . That was what I didn't get the first time. You're going to really struggle for the rest of your life. And if you really take it serious in drug court, you've got to maintain that same commitment throughout the rest of your life, honestly. And that's just really starting to sink in. I'm almost 40. And it's just kind of hit me. But I've rededicated my life at church. I mean, a lot of great things have came from my sobriety . . .

Judge Taylor knows Russell and the other 230 something participants by name. He’s watched them fail and succeed. One graduate stands out to Taylor because the judge shops where this man works.

TAYLOR: He's never said, “Look at me, look how great I'm doing.” But what I've noticed over the years is how consistently he chairs meetings, AA meetings. And this quiet guy who never says anything, who never says, “Look at me, I'm sober for three years. I'm doing this, I'm doing that.” But to just see him in that place, working, working his job every day.

Taylor says the man has gained the respect of his co-workers and other drug court participants. He’s vital to his recovery community.

TAYLOR: It's part of who he is now because of what he's encountered in drug court. And, uh, that to me is, that's the lasting change. And that's somebody who's going to keep doing it because he's not getting attention for it. He's not working an angle.

But I ask Taylor, a serious Presbyterian, if addicts can really experience lasting change without a heart change.

TAYLOR: We all know, ultimately, where grace comes from, and it's not from a drug court program. It's not from our best efforts. It's from somewhere else.

Still, Taylor believes there’s an order to follow.

TAYLOR: First thing is getting a person sober gets them to a place where they can hear, they can see, they can respond . . . We hope as Christians that that takes people all the way and that they open up and they continue down that road . . . Sometimes that's a rapid thing. There are people that come to court, after they've been in drug court three weeks and say, “I've found the Lord, and it's all, it's all good. And I've got it all figured out.” . . . There are other people that months, weeks, years, it starts to sink in on them . . .

When they can, Taylor and Douglas grasp opportunities to share the gospel with drug court participants. But that can get complicated in a secular setting.

Taylor says there’s a danger in creating the impression that sobriety and salvation are the same. Still, he points out no one—not even the most addicted substance abuser on death’s door—is beyond the arm of God.

TAYLOR: The most offensive thing about addiction is that we're image bearers and addicts are image bearers, and to see them lose dignity and to be in that condition—Christian response is that we have to restore that dignity . . .

In the United States, substance abuse comes with an annual $600 billion price tag. But here’s where drug courts come in. A year’s worth of drug treatment costs a fifth of an equal amount of prison time. And a Department of Justice study found that 72 percent of drug court graduates have no arrests at the two-year mark.

But drug courts are facing a new challenge. Changing perceptions.

NEWS CLIP

Supervised drug injection sites? Some say addiction is a public health problem, not a criminal justice problem. A disorder, not deviant behavior. Jail shouldn’t be part of the equation. Taylor admits he leans libertarian on some issues, but not this one.

TAYLOR: So I think that for Christians, the ultimate question is not even whether it's legal or illegal. That's wrong and it's bad and it's harmful. And it's a manifestation of our fallenness, not of our, uh, freedom. And so we, we, we have to recognize people who are struggling with addiction as people who . . . need restoration . . . I don’t see how anyone could look at a person in the grips of addiction and say, “Well, we can celebrate their exercise of their liberty to do what they want to do. Uh, it's just, just not the case.

For a while, Rachel 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.

AMBI: CAMERA CLICKING

At a graduation ceremony last summer, Rachel Williams stood with her fellow graduates at the front of the courtroom. John Douglas and others snapped photos. Williams is now married, works as a traveling caregiver. She enjoys mended relationships with a sister she stole from and a daughter she gave up.

WILLIAMS: Rachel Williams did it. If you knew my father. If you knew my brother . . . A Williams wouldn’t make it. That’s what everybody would say. But now it’s Rachel Williams Clay. And I made it. (laughs)

Williams tells the audience she’s been sober for eight years, five months, and a day. 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.

Another graduate, Aimee Smith, is overcome with emotion. She says drug court saved her life.

Aimee Smith gets her certificate of completion from Judge Mike Taylor.

Aimee Smith gets her certificate of completion from Judge Mike Taylor. Photo by Kim Henderson

SMITH: My parents wouldn’t have a daughter. My children wouldn’t have a mother. It’s been hard. Really hard . . .

Smith was addicted to meth. It took her four and a half years to complete the program. She remembers a turning point.

SMITH: I was testing hot, and I have three children. My 14-year-old who was 10 at the time went with his dad to pick me up out of jail. He looked at me in the eyes and he said, “Are you done yet? Can I have my mama back? And that was it.”

She gives credit for her success to the judge, John Douglas, the whole drug court team.

SMITH: The people who run this program know what they’re doing. They care. And if they didn’t care, you wouldn’t make it out.

Smith isn’t alone in that belief. Remember Wanda Russell, the law student who got addicted to painkillers?

RUSSELL: Judge Taylor is a really good man, you know. He's hard on people, but just because he cares. He really does. I've seen it. I've seen him give me a lot of chances and, and not just throw me to the wolves . . . Like John told me one time, he's not trying to punish me. They're trying to save my life. And that really, you know, I used to think that was cliche, but I really believe they mean it.

So caring seems to be the key component. Douglas says for his drug court employees, it's a resume requirement.

DOUGLAS: These officers do the heavy lifting, which is answering the phone in the middle of the night. Answering, you know, at a barbecue, at their, at their kid's birthday party. And somebody's going through a crisis . . . We've helped them dig graves for their family. We've helped them get medicine. We've celebrated their kids going in the military and coming out of basic training and being successful. We celebrate their lives with them. And we mourn their loss as well.

I ask him why they do it.

DOUGLAS: Well, they see the people get better, you know. Why is anybody in law enforcement? You know, it's a way for them to share their faith—by works, you know, fruits . . .

As Christians, we know sin is the ultimate reason anyone breaks the law. But sin’s ripple effects create waves of trauma that can wash over generations. Most of the men and women behind bars have experienced some form of trauma or abuse. And until they deal with that, they will continue to perpetuate those same sinful patterns.

Next week, we’ll meet some of the people trying to mend broken hearts and minds behind bars.

Effective Compassion is produced by the creative team at WORLD Radio. I’m Kim Henderson. Leigh Jones is the producer. Paul Butler is our technical producer, and Rich Roszel is our engineer.

UNDERWRITER SPOT
Support Effective Compassion today at wng.org/donate. Additional support comes from World Help, a Christian humanitarian organization working to deliver food and Bibles to starving, persecuted Christians in North Korea, one of the most dangerous nations for Christians. A gift of $20 sends a Bible and a week's worth of food to a North Korean brother or sister. More at worldhelp.net/podcast.


WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.

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