“From preschool to college, many families celebrated graduates last month.
All graduations are joyous portals to new circumstances, but Drug Court commencements can mean the difference between life and death.
On May 17, in DeLand and Daytona Beach, 18 people received certificates and a whole lot more after completing rigorous Volusia County Drug Court and DUI Court programs.
As an alternative to jail time or fines, these special courts offer extensive supervision and treatment for nonviolent offenders who have chronic substance-abuse problems. Graduates can have their criminal charges dismissed or their sentences reduced, or earn other incentives.
Taxpayers foot the bill, but programs like Drug Court and DUI Court are far cheaper than criminal prosecution, court officials say.
Circuit Judge Raul Zambrano is one of two Drug Court overseers in Volusia County. As a former prosecutor, Zambrano has seen an evolution in the drugs themselves, from cocaine to opiates, and now synthetic drugs. The way drug crimes are handled has also evolved.
In the 1980s, he said, “The mentality was we can incarcerate our way out of this problem.”
Graduating from the rigorous programs is not easy, Court Communications Officer Ludmilla Lelis said.
“It is a difficult program,” Lelis said. “We do require a lot of them. They must maintain employment, attend therapy sessions, drug-test and go through drug treatment, along with court hearings. You have to be there every week.”
Drug Court veteran Jayne Principe of DeLand graduated from the program in 2009. She agrees with Lelis: It’s not a walk in the park.
“I did it in 11 months,” Principe said. “Some people did three years and still ended up in prison. They didn’t do what they were supposed to do. You have to jump through hoops. It’s not a joke.”
At 47, Principe was facing her first felony charge for drug possession. A domestic altercation brought law enforcement to Principe’s Orange City home.
Principe produced the cocaine she thought would incriminate another person living in the house. Instead, she was arrested.
“Clink, clink,” she said. “I was so naive.”
Volusia County Circuit Judge James Clayton ordered her to take a drug test.
“He was like, ‘When was the last time you smoked crack?’” Principe said. “And I was like, ‘Well, what time is it?’”
Her response drew laughs in the courtroom, but Judge Clayton told Principe that, considering the amount of narcotics in her system, she should be dead.
Circuit Judge Joseph Will remanded her to Drug Court, stipulating that she must leave her home — or go to jail.
“I went to jail twice because I wouldn’t move out of the house,” Principe said.
She said the judge knew drugs were still being used in the home.
Finally, she complied and moved out, into her parents’ home.
With a car and a second-shift job, Principe was easily able to attend Narcotics Anonymous meetings and group therapy, show up for regular early-morning drug testing, and attend court when summoned.
“I was lucky,” she said.
Not all program enrollees enjoy access to transportation, gainful employment and family support.
“Some days, I’d pick up five people on the way to group,” Principe said. “Out there in DeBary, the bus drops you off like a mile from the place. … These young girls and guys have kids. … It’s hard. It’s hard.”
She continued. “If you don’t have a car, you’re screwed. And in the first and second phase, you can’t get a job in the morning because you have to be in court.”
Principe also had motivation. As a former Drug Enforcement Administration employee, where she worked dispensing narcotics to hospitals and pharmacies, the last thing she wanted was a felony charge on her record.
“I did what I had to do,” she said. “There is a reason for what the judge does. I learned that along the way.”
Since its inception, Volusia County’s program has produced 966 graduates.
“Of our graduates, 79 percent have had no new drug charges within two years of completing the program,” Lelis said.
Treatment courts reduce crime by as much as 45 percent and save taxpayers thousands of dollars each year, according to the National Association of Drug Court Professionals.
Annually, it costs taxpayers just more than $31,000 to keep a person in a state prison. It costs $6,000 to put that person through a treatment-court program, the NADCP reports.
The organization estimates that, nationwide, 75 percent of drug-court graduates are not rearrested, and that DUI courts reduce recidivism by 60 percent.
Also, 50 percent of Family Drug Court participants are able to reunite their families, the NADCP says.
Circuit Judge Matthew Foxman joins Zambrano in overseeing Drug Court; Circuit Judge Judith Davidson presides over DUI Court.
The programs’ success could rest with the bench.
“Unless substance abusing/addicted offenders are regularly supervised by a judge and held accountable, 70 percent drop out of treatment prematurely,” according to the NADCP.
Principe’s only criticism of the process is the fact that prospective employers can easily access her arrest record and “adjudication withheld” status.
Some immediately dismiss her from job candidacy.
Others are willing to overlook the past.
“And it’s been eight years now,” she said, “so I don’t have to lie on the application where it asks if you’ve been arrested in the past seven years.”
She wasn’t, to use recovery-speak, “a first-time winner.”
“I relapsed a couple of times, but I got back on the wagon,” she said. “The seed was planted.”
And she’s not ashamed to tell her story.
FAST FACTS ABOUT DRUG COURT
• May was National Drug Court Month.
• 2017 marks 20 years since the program was established in Volusia County.
• Nationally, treatment courts include those specializing in DUI, family matters, Native Americans and veterans.
• While Level 1 crimes, such as simple drug possession, might result in court-ordered drug-center treatment, Drug Court is for more serious offenders who have chronic, serious addictions. They often face related criminal charges, as well, such as theft or burglary, incurred because of their addictions.
• Drug addicts often steal to support their habits, but Drug Court graduates are required to pay back their victims. “Restitution is paramount,” said Judge Raul Zambrano, one of two Volusia County judges who supervise Drug Court. “That is, no victim will ever be left owed any money by a participant of Drug Court.”
“I think I’m a better person for it,” Principe said. “I’d be dead—there’s no doubt about it.”
Kicking drug addiction is hard; Principe is not the only one who had to try more than once. Among the latest group of graduates was a young woman Judge Zambrano didn’t think could do it.
“I was convinced beyond a doubt that she would never make it, and I told her so,” he said.
But she did. Thanks to Drug Court and its supporters, that woman and hundreds of others found a path to a sober and prosperous life.”
– Erika Webb, firstname.lastname@example.org