Strafford County Drug Court Coordinator Carrie Lover, Hon. Peter Fauver, Strafford County Attorney Thomas Velardi, and Drug Court Case Manager Jamie Bennett discuss a participant during a pre-court evaluation session.
When a young man convicted of theft and burglary strolls up to the judge’s bench at the Strafford Superior Court wearing a wall-clock necklace to show his new devotion to punctuality, the assembled, judge included, break into laughter.
"You know what? You get a fishbowl treat," says retired Superior Court Judge Peter Fauver, as the young man, smiling, reaches into the nearby fishbowl, pulling out a candy bar. "Thanks for bringing some humor into the day."
What would normally get a stern look and silence in a traditional courtroom gets this young man a treat.
Not every participant gets treats, though. During the same session of the Strafford County Drug Court, another participant was faced with a hard decision. The young woman, a cocaine addict, arrived for her weekly drug test and tested positive for cocaine and marijuana. Questioned by drug court staff before the hearing, she admitted that she’d been to a party, but denied taking any drugs.
In the courtroom, the woman’s appearance before Judge Fauver became tense.
"Talk to me," said Judge Fauver, giving her a hard look and leaning forward.
"I’m ashamed and embarrassed," she says, shifting awkwardly. She denies taking cocaine, but admits to drinking.
"You tested positive for cocaine. I put a lot of faith in that machine [the drug testing equipment]," Fauver says. "I’ll give you a week over at the jail to think about it. You’re not out of the program, but this is a setback."
Before the court session, a multidisciplinary drug court team – including the judge, social workers, and representatives from the local prosecutor and public defender’s offices, meet together to evaluate the weekly progress of each participant. The woman’s drug test result led to a discussion of possible punishments. The issue for all was not that something was done wrong or a law broken, but that the woman refused to admit to taking any substance. When talk turned to consequences, everything depended on whether she took responsibility for herself and her actions. Honesty would result in mercy and she would be sent to the county jail for a night; dishonesty would result in a week in the jail.
At no point in the discussion was any mention made of throwing her out of the drug court. To do so, team members said, would defeat the purpose of the program.
The Strafford County Drug Court, in operation since 2005, has seen participants graduate back into society with jobs, housing and a new confidence in their ability to maintain a "normal life."
The first adult drug court in the state and designed as a 12-month, three phase alternative to incarceration, the Strafford County program began with the help of a three-year US Department of Justice grant. The program takes non-violent, felony-level – and now some misdemeanor – offenders and NH State Prison parolees and puts them into intensive alcohol and drug treatment, integrated case management, strict court supervision and a revolutionary program of progressive incentives and sanctions to help break down the participants and build them up again in a positive, supportive environment. The program has been so successful that the county has decided to continue funding the $300,000 annual budget since the federal grant expired this year.
The program is selective. Many defendants try to get into the program as a way to avoid jail time, but Strafford County Drug Court Coordinator Carrie Lover says that usually doesn’t work.
"Charges have to be appropriate," Lover said. "No one is going to get in if he/she is in court for domestic violence or assault. And on top of that, the county attorney has complete veto power over any candidate."
The drug court program of treatment has three phases. Each step of the progression pushes the participants toward taking responsibility for their own actions and toward developing clean lifestyles:
Phase I – : The final four-to-six-month phase requires only monthly court appearances; a single random urine test per week; continued attendance at self-help meetings; continued employment and continued payment of court fees.
The program usually lasts a year, followed by a year of probation, says Lover. "After two years of the program are completed the charges can be nol-prossed," she adds, "though for some serious crimes the prosecutor requires the charge to stay on the participant’s record."
Unlike many criminal justice programs, the Strafford County Drug Court puts responsibility into the hands of the participants. Their success is entirely dependent on how well they stay in line with the program’s goals. In order to ensure that participants stay motivated, the program utilizes a system of sanctions and incentives – a piece of the process that Fauver says is pivotal.
"Many of these people [participants] don’t come from backgrounds where success is rewarded," Fauver said. "The program incentives give them something to look forward to."
Incentives normally revolve around congratulations, positive input and sometimes, candy. When a participant finds a job, they get a candy bar and a round of applause; sometimes they are allowed to leave court early.
Sanctions, however, can be severe. Breaking the rules of the program won’t normally get a participant kicked out, but it can result in significant hampering of freedom. Being late or losing a job can mean a day on the county work program. Missing a drug test or relapsing with drugs or alcohol can mean a stint in the Strafford County Jail’s Therapeutic Community (to be discussed in a later article) or in the regular jail.
When the three-phase portion of the program is complete, participants are given a graduation ceremony – though participants continue probation for one year and maintain attendance at self-help meetings. Kenneth Brown, who joined the Superior Court last year who is also heavily involved in Drug Court, says that he’s seen tangible results among participants.
"You can see the change from when they start the program to when they graduate," said Brown. "They’re different people."
To date, 32 men and women have graduated from the program and have come away with a new outlook on life and with a determined desire to continue the progress made during their association with the drug court. Nearly 40 people are now in the program.
Beth Padziora, 31, a former crack cocaine addict arrested for dealing drugs, says that she didn’t expect the program to be so difficult. "It’s not easy. You really have to be ready to change," said Padziora. "The hardest part was admitting that I had a problem."
Padziora, currently in Phase II of the program, says that every step of the program is a challenge and that the only way to make it is by taking personal responsibility. She also says that those around her have come to support her as they learn about the program and its purpose.
"Right now I’m a supervisor at a cleaning company," said Padziora. "When I first got a job, my employer was a little nervous, but now that they know about the program, they work with my schedule."
From the criminal justice system’s point of view, Love says that the drug court approach is a better deal all around. "Recidivism [in the prison system] is high and it ends up costing more to re-process the people that come back," Lover said. "Here, we’re conducting the assessments up front and bringing them in to get the treatment they need."
That process, says court staff, is not only successful, but costs less than incarceration.
According to the 2007 NH State Prison Annual Report, it costs roughly $32,000 to hold an inmate at the state prison for one year. Lover says that the county jails spend nearly $25,000 per year on each inmate. For drug court participants, however, the costs to the county for each participant is only $15,700 per year.
It’s been three years into the Strafford County Drug Court program, and though not everyone comes away changed, it’s the one that does, says Strafford County Attorney Thomas Velardi, that makes the program worth running.
"These are well-recycled names that come into this program. These judges have seen these people again and again before them in court," Velardi said. "If we can take one of those people and lead them in the right direction, it makes it worth it to keep on with the program."