Drug Court Offers Defendants Alternative To Jail

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Four years ago, Brenda Burrows was deep into the methamphetamine habit she developed in 1985. So deep that she was selling the drug to pay for her own daily fixes.

No one who knew Burrows back then would be surprised to learn that she spent the latter part of last Thursday afternoon in a Payson courtroom before Gila County Superior Court Judge Robert Duber. That court appearance, said the 47-year-old former truck driver, capped the "happiest day of my life."

By the time Duber shook Burrows' hand ... and all her friends and family members stood in line to give her congratulatory hugs ... and all the other drug defendants in the courtroom gave her a round of applause ... Brenda Burrows had become the latest graduate of the Gila County Probation Department's Drug Court program.

A vital offspring of the Drug Medicalization, Prevention and Control Act of 1996 (Proposition 200), Drug Court routs nonviolent narcotics offenders to treatment rather than prison. The success rate of this and similar programs across the country, experts say, is nothing short of miraculous. Only 10 to 15 percent of offenders who successfully complete the nine-month program a regimen that requires intensive counseling and treatment, regular urinalysis and eye-scan drug testing, and employment in exchange for dismissal of criminal charges are re-arrested.

In comparison, the recidivism rate for drug offenders who take the usual journey through the criminal justice system is 70 percent.

"Our graduates really feel like they leave the program as a productive citizen," said Gila County Probation Officer Terry Goode, who oversaw Burrows' transition from drug addict to Drug Court success story. "Graduation really raises their self-esteem and their own awareness that they don't have to use drugs to get through life like the rest of us. I think that serves the citizens well, because we don't have people out there using (drugs) anymore."

That's not the only way Drug Court serves the general population.

Incarceration of Gila County's drug-using using offenders costs between $20,000 and $50,000 per person per year. The capital costs of building a prison cell can be as much as $80,000.

The estimated price tag for each person who passes through the drug court system is typically less than $2,500.

Additionally, researchers have determined that those in the severe stages of drug addiction commit nearly 63 crimes per year to support their habits. When the habit disappears, so go the crimes.

It is possible, however, that the positive influence of Drug Court could soon wane or screech to a halt. Due to recent cuts by the State Supreme Court, the probation department's juvenile and adult budget has been slashed by $82,000, which must be recouped by the end of June for the department and Drug Court to remain solvent.

Turnarounds

Since the first Drug Court was established in Miami in 1989, versions have been established in over 400 jurisdictions across the country, and dozens more are in the planning stage as more officials begin to consider narcotics abuse as primarily a public health issue, rather than a criminal justice issue.

Few if any states have taken that philosophy further than Arizona.

With the 1996 passage of Prop. 200, Arizona became the only state at that time to mandate treatment and prohibit incarceration for nonviolent drug offenders. The program, according to a report released one year later by the Arizona Supreme Court, proved far more effective and far less expensive than incarceration.

In that first year, $3.1 million was spent on probation-based treatment programs with 2,600 additional treatment slots being created; three out of five probationers successfully completed treatment; three out of four probationers placed in treatment remained drug free; and the program saved Arizona more than $2.5 million.

Terry Goode took over the probation side of Gila County's two-year-old drug court program last summer, by which time it had produced 10 graduates. Since then, she's seen another eight drug users walk off with a diploma and, even better, a new and hopeful attitude toward life.

The vast majority of Payson's drug-court participants upwards of 90 percent, Goode estimated are methamphetamine users like Brenda Burrows. Virtually all of those would continue barreling toward big trouble without the help and guidance provided through drug court, she said.

"Nothing matches meth in terms of human destruction, because it becomes their primary need. You don't need to eat, you don't need to take care of anything in your life, you just need your next fix. And when the meth user has children, that's tragic, because the kids didn't ask for this kind of a life. All they ask is that you love them and take care of them. But when you are taking care of your drug needs, you aren't taking care of your children."

The most dramatic human story Goode has seen unfold in drug court, she said, was that of a 21-year-old Payson meth user "with a real dysfunctional family history, no role models, nothing good in his life historically. He came into the program with the idea that the system was the bad guy. But when he graduated from the program, he stood up and addressed the court. He said, 'I finally realized that I was the one with the problem that I can live clean, and I can live sober, and I am the benefactor of that choice.'

"When someone takes responsibility for the issues they have in their life," Goode observed, "that's a huge turnaround."

When a participant rejects that responsibility, the punishment can begin with fairly minor sanctions, and end with a lengthy jail sentence.

"Nobody drops out of drug court," Goode said. "Once you're in, you're in. If you decide not to come in when you're supposed to, I report that to the judge, we issue a warrant for your arrest, we go pick you up, and you might face charges.

"If you show up, but fail to take a urinalysis test, or give us a 'dirty' test (wherein recent drug use is revealed), you automatically get 24 hours of jail time. Do it twice, you get 48 hours. If you are ultimately terminated from the drug court, (such infractions) can come back to haunt you, and you could end up in jail."

Back on track

It was 17 years ago that Burrows started using methamphetamine in order to giver her the "boost" she thought she needed to get through her days as a California truck driver.

"Ever since then, I did it pretty much every day," she said, the day before her graduation.

The problem worsened in 1993, when Burrows returned to her hometown, Payson, to care for her elderly father.

"I wasn't making the money here that I made in California. I went from $800 a week to $200 a week ... so I started selling meth, so I could afford to pay for my habit

"The last thing I was thinking about was prison, or that I was breaking the law, or that I was even a 'druggie.' I was totally in denial," Burrows confessed. "That was the hardest thing: to admit to myself that I was not only a druggie, but a drug dealer. I didn't realize that until I was arrested in 1998. And then it was too late."

Fortunately for Burrows and the county's other drug defendants, it's never too late as long as there is a Drug Court.

But if the state's budget cuts translate into the curtailment or outright loss of Gila County's Drug Court program, it is Duber's view that the results for the area's drug defendants could be tragic.

"Everybody who is in the program would not be followed as closely, nor would they find support when they relapse," Duber said. "And those are key to successful rehabilitation."

Also key, Duber added, is the camaraderie all Drug Court participants seem to share and enthusiastically exhibit via applause, cheers and sympathetic words in the courtroom, whenever one of their members succeeds or fails to even the smallest degree.

On the other hand, Duber said, it does everyone good when a drug user is given a chance and makes the most of it, like Brenda Burrows.

"Brenda is one of our standouts," Duber said. "We're going to see Brenda be successful. We're not going to see her again, knock on wood. And that's the whole purpose of the Drug Court program."

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