Posted: Saturday, December 14, 2013 12:00 am | Updated: 11:51 pm, Sat Dec 14, 2013. BY FRANK GREEN Richmond Times-Dispatch
Sixteen years ago Donald W. Lemons was a relatively new Richmond Circuit Court judge when he pushed for a new kind of court and served as its first judge.
The Richmond Adult Drug Treatment Court celebrated its 15th official year Friday with a graduation ceremony attended by Lemons, now a Virginia Supreme Court justice, who told some success stories from the court’s early days.
Lemons, however, also knows that addiction can strike anywhere and not every drug abuser can be saved. “Two weeks ago, I learned that on the day after Thanksgiving my cousin died from an overdose of heroin,” he said.
Addressing the crowd of roughly 200 court staff, graduates and dignitaries, Lemons said, “She was the daughter of my first cousin. I was 14 when she was born and I remember what a beautiful young girl she was. She died at age 50 in a distant city.”
He said she had been estranged from her family, including her two adult daughters. “Her eldest daughter, upon learning the news said, ‘I always knew that someday I would get this call,’ ” Lemons said.
“You know addiction is no respecter of persons. Addiction affects all races, men and women, educated and unschooled, the rich and the poor and even surfaces in a judge’s family,” Lemons said.
In 1997 Lemons’ court was one of three pilot programs in Virginia. Today there are 36 drug courts in Virginia — 22 adult courts, eight juvenile courts, two regional courts and four family courts — and more than 2,700 such courts across the country.
“Do we have setbacks and disappointments in the drug court program? You bet we do,” Lemons said. “But there is plenty of evidence that it makes a difference in the lives of many participants and is a cost-effective alternative to traditional incarceration.”
The aim of the program is to get addicts off drugs and out of the criminal justice system. Not all who start it finish. But more than 300 people, including Friday’s 14 graduates, have made it through to graduation.
A 2008 study by the Joint Legislative Audit Review Commission showed that the re-arrest rate for drug court completers in Richmond and Chesterfield County was 14 percent compared with 38 percent for similar non-drug court offenders.
A study last year of 12 of Virginia’s drug courts by the National Center for State Courts concluded that the drug courts save $19,234 per person as compared with “business as usual” handling for the same group of offenders.
The Richmond program provides substance-abuse treatment, probation supervision, mental-health counseling and other services to addicted felons with non-violent records.
There are usually about 60 participants in the Richmond program, almost all of them probation violators. The judge wields a carrot — freedom — and a stick — a suspended sentence hanging over the heads of the participants.
The court was officially founded in 1998 and had its first formal graduation in 1999, presided over by Lemons — then a judge on the Virginia Court of Appeals — and Richmond Circuit Judge Margaret Spencer, who took over for Lemons.
Lemons said getting the drug court started was not easy. There was no money, he said. “Most of all, we needed to have a new attitude toward the problem of addiction.”
There was resistance in the General Assembly and from some judges who did not believe it was the sort of work courts ought to be doing. Lemons — who joined the Supreme Court a few years later — was even warned it could be “a career-ender move.”
“You can imagine how thankful I am for Judge Spencer, who took responsibility for the drug court after I left and has been dedicated to it ever since,” Lemons said.
In the beginning, he said needed help came from a wide variety of sources including counselors, probation officers, teachers and public health professionals.
The court also got support from then-Richmond Commonwealth’s Attorney David Hicks and his successor,
Public safety, said Lemons, is a primary consideration of the program and no one can participate without the agreement of the commonwealth’s attorney.
Lemons said that long after he left drug court he still ran into participants. He recalled one encounter at Virginia Center Commons when a familiar voice hollered, “Yo, Judge Lemons.”
“I knew who that was before I even looked up,” Lemons said. The young man approached him. “I said, ‘Anthony, how are you?’ ”
Lemons said the young man smiled and told him: “Look, thank you for putting me in jail for a few months. . . . Before you put me into drug court, I needed to be off the streets. I needed to be clean. I needed to be away from the people I was hanging with.”
He said he had paid all his fines and court costs, his child support was current and for the first time in his adult life he had an address and a driver’s license.
Each of Friday’s 14 graduates was introduced, their families recognized and a bit of their substance abuse history recounted before they were given certificates of completion and could make remarks of their own.
The last of them, Antonio Wilkins, a former crack addict, thanked the police for arresting him and thanked his family, the drug court staff, the judges and his fellow graduates and others for their help.
“I thought I was going to die with a crack pipe in my mouth,” said Wilkins, his voice breaking. “I just want to thank you all for just putting up with me. Thank you all for loving me,” he said. “Thank you all for giving my life back.”
BY GRAHAM MOOMAW Richmond Times-Dispatch | Posted: Sunday, September 1, 2013 12:00 am
For a while, Wilbert Harris was a functioning addict. He served in the military for 12 years. When he came home, he had a variety of odd jobs, mostly in construction. But his affinity for alcohol, cocaine and heroin eventually landed him in jail.
He started spending time driving around with people who stole from such stores as Home Depot and Kmart, taking things as small as a bar of soap or as big as a television, which led to a conviction for petty larceny in Henrico County. His troubles worsened when he started failing court-ordered drug tests, violated his probation and ended up in a foot chase with Richmond police that led to a charge of cocaine possession.
“I don’t look at it as being arrested. I was rescued,” Harris said. “Because I wasn’t going to stop on my own.”
Harris, 52, was one of the first graduates of the Henrico Drug Court, a program that will mark its 10-year anniversary this month.
He graduated from the program in 2004. With his own determination to change and a lot of help, Harris got a big break that allowed him to start and keep a clean life: He was hired at Krispy Kreme. After seven years of making doughnuts, he now works as an environmental services supervisor at St. Mary’s Hospital.
“It’s been working wonders for me,” Harris said of the program, adding that he now has good relationships with his mother, daughter and grandchildren.
Harris is one of more than 300 people who have participated in the Drug Court since early 2003, according to the county. During that time, 122 people have graduated.
There are dozens of drug courts across Virginia, including adult programs in Richmond and Chesterfield County as well as a juvenile program in Hanover County, according to the Virginia Drug Court Association website.
In an interview, Henrico Circuit Judges Catherine Hammond and Gary A. Hicks said the program was designed to be an alternative to incarceration for people who kept showing up in circuit courts for violating probation.
“We were having lots and lots of cases every day of people violating because of drugs,” Hammond said.
The Drug Court is a voluntary program targeted at nonviolent offenders who have felony convictions, mostly grand larceny or drug offenses, and have trouble completing probation because of substance abuse and addiction.
Once a probation violator enters Drug Court, his or her sentence is suspended on the condition that they adhere to the 12- to 18-month program and its behavioral requirements.
Over the course of four phases, participants undergo drug and alcohol tests, group counseling, 12-step meetings and probation supervision in addition to regular court appearances.
The program aims to help people get jobs, open checking accounts, reunite with family members, pay child support and get off public assistance.
In short, it’s supposed to help people become functioning, taxpaying members of society.
Participants are given incentives for good behavior, but such things as tardiness, dishonesty and failure to look for a job can bring sanctions, which include essays, community service, scolding from the judge and jail time.
On Friday, a few dozen people gathered in a Henrico courtroom for a Drug Court session. As Hammond went down a list of names, each person stood, walked to a lectern in front of the bench, and had a brief chat with the judge. Participants simply talked about their lives, giving updates on jobs, housing, children, education, transportation and sponsors.
“It’s just a different approach with each individual,” Hicks said, describing the process. “There’s not a really cookie-cutter mode.”
Most participants were announced Friday as being “clean, sober and compliant.” Some received a round of applause and small rewards such as books, movie tickets and gift cards for hitting milestones in their sobriety.
But not everyone got good feedback.
One woman claimed she had gone to a hospital last weekend with a migraine caused by high blood pressure, but Hammond suspected the hospital visit was an attempt to acquire medication.
“You’re still positive today for opiates, so you’re going to have to go to jail until Monday,” Hammond said before the woman was led away in tears.
Before each Drug Court session, all of the people involved in the process, including defense attorneys, prosecutors, counselors, probation officers, administrators and an investigator from the Sheriff’s Office, meet with the presiding judge to go over the docket and give updates on each person’s status.
“This is really a team effort,” Hammond said. “All of these players have to be on board or we couldn’t do it.”
The court has about 60 people enrolled, and the judges said that is about as large as it can be before the groups start getting too big.
The program operates on a budget of about $423,000 per year, said Drug Court Administrator Patricia Shaw. About $232,000 comes from the state, roughly $179,000 comes from the county and a little more than $12,000 comes from fees paid by participants.
Shaw said the average annual costs for a Drug Court participant are significantly less than the costs of incarcerating a person for a year.
On Sept. 17, the Drug Court will hold a gala at the Henrico Theatre to mark the program’s first 10 years.
Harris said he’s looking forward to the celebration.
He said that without the structure and life lessons of the Drug Court, he would probably be dead or locked up.
“I don’t know what God would have had in store for me,” Harris said. “But he sent me that. And that was what I needed.”