Drug court turns addicts' lives around

The Kitsap County commissioners’ chambers have never been this full, even for discussions about NASCAR or the comprehensive plan. But on July 27, 13 people graduated from Kitsap County Drug Court with friends, relatives and alumni cramming the room to cheer them on.

As each graduate was called to the microphone for a brief testimonial, his or her booking mugshot was projected on 20-foot screen to show where they were not so long ago.

In every case, the comparison between the sullen and surly images provided a stark contrast to the optimistic and assured people they have now become.

“This has been a lifesaver,” said one graduate. “It turned me around after 35 years of addiction. The support, guidance and supervision of drug court held me accountable for my actions. I don’t t want to change anything right now. And I don’t want to go back to where I was.”

Drug Court began in 1999 under the supervision of Superior Court Judge Jay B. Roof, who still heads the program. While Roof is its most visible advocate, the program is a combined effort between law enforcement, judicial, fiscal and health-related aspects of county government.

“So many people have a piece of this,” said Substance Abuse Treatment Coordinator Betsy Bosch, “and that’s why it works.”

“Drug court saves lives and families,” said Kitsap County Sheriff Steve Boyer. “It’s also cost-effective. Because of drug court, we spend fewer resources on healthcare and jail space. We still need law enforcement, because intervention starts the process.”

Drug court is presented as an alternative to jail time for a certain level of drug offenders. Those caught dealing or accused of a felony are not eligible, so anyone committing an assault while intoxicated will be placed in the regular court system.

Those who qualify commit themselves for 18 months, during which they must attend treatment programs, stay clean and spend one morning a week in Roof’s courtroom speaking about their progress and listening to others.

During this time, Roof switches roles from the objective jurist to a concerned father figure. He calls each person by name, looks them in the eye and helps them process how their lives are changing.

“For many of the participants, this is the first time anyone in a position of authority has actually cared about them,” Roof said.

Drug Court is a more difficult road than the equivalent jail time. Participants work hard, and the excuses they’ve used for a lifetime don’t work anymore. Still, there’s a waiting list of people who would rather spend 18 months in drug court than eight months in jail.

Once someone graduates, they have a better chance of staying clean than after they get out of a forced detox jail environment.

Roof said the program is too difficult for some participants, who are tossed out for various transgressions. This can range from chronic tardiness to continuing drug use. But many of those tossed out of the program clean themselves up and come back a second time, and then graduate.

Staying clean, obviously, is the most important component. Counseling sessions — sometimes daily — are an essential part of the process. Enforcement in the guise of a daily urinalysis keeps people on the path.

Participants must call in each day to determine whether they will need to report for a test. They’re called in at random, forcing them to stay clean all the time.

“They get the message we aren’t fooling around,” Bosch said. “It’s easier to go to jail. They need to change their entire lifestyle and get out of the drug culture. It takes time, and they need to learn how to live within acceptable guidelines.”

Many of the graduates find jobs in the substance treatment field, becoming counselors for those still in addiction’s grasp. “It’s important for us to work with other people who have the same problems so we don’t forget where we came from,” said one graduate. “So we can return what’s been given to us so freely.”

In the face of looming county budget cuts, program advocates fear for its future. Cutting the program, they say, would be bad business. Drug Court benefits from a series of state grants, most visibly a $256,000 allocation covering the treatment side.

Otherwise, its cost is measured in staff time expended by the various departments involved in the program. This is incalculable, as the prosecutor, courts and corrections departments would need to deal with these offenders one way or another. Drug Court, its advocates say, is a more efficient way to allocate resources.

While it’s hard to separate the costs, Roof estimates every dollar spent on drug court saves $2.50 down the road.

Roof said former drug court graduates and participants approach him all the time, expressing gratitude for the program and how it’s changed their lives. And his involvement with the 600 or so people who have passed through the program continues; in September he is due to officiate a wedding between two drug court graduates who have stayed clean for five years.

“This is my passion,” Roof said of drug court. “It’s why I am still a judge.”

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