Drug court is one tough court

Of 260 applicants, 33 have graduated to date

Defendants and the public may have initially
thought Drug Rehabilitation Court was a soft option, infinitely preferable to
confinement in prison.

If drug court meant going before a
magistrate a couple of times and attending a few sessions with a counsellor, how
hard could it be?

After two and a half years, results
provide an answer.

For every three applicants who make
it through, seven are returned to regular criminal court for sentencing.

“It’s a tough programme,” said
Catherine Chesnut, Drug Rehab Court coordinator.  

“We have had 260 applicants since
October 2007,” she explained, referring to the court’s official start.

Ms Chesnut has kept drug court
statistics since the beginning, with figures in this article current as of 27
April.

Thirty-three of the applicants have
graduated. From March 2009 not one person has made it through the programme in
less than a year, Ms Chesnut said. “Nobody got a shortcut.”

Attendance at Drug Rehab Court
averages 43 people each month.

 About 45 per cent of the applicants – 117
individuals — never made it past the initial screening process. Some did not meet
the criteria for eligibility set out by The Drug Rehabilitation Court Law: the
participant appears to have a genuine dependency on drugs; does not have previous
convictions for any offence
involving violence; and does admit the charges that brought him or her to the
attention of the drug court.

Other applicants could make a
commitment to the programme because of its intensity.

 Of the 135 people who made it through the
screening, 44 per cent did not meet the standards expected of them. 

Or they may have lied about
continued drug use.  Relapses are not reason
to be dismissed from the programme, but persistent dishonesty is not tolerated.

Those who were not accepted or left
the programme had their Drug Rehab Court records sealed and they have been sent
back to a regular court.

But the success rate is worth celebrating
for two reasons. Of the 30 men and three women who have graduated, only two have
failed to stay clean and sober.

Second, the 33 people who have
graduated and the 43 who continue to attend Drug Rehab Court represent a
substantial savings to government of money that might have been required to keep
them incarcerated.

The last publicised figure was
$53,000 per year per inmate, so 76 people kept out of prison for 12 months means
over $4 million the state did not have to spend.

The drug court has no budget. There
is just one full-time employee; the drug court officer who deals with administration
and is part of the general court staff. Ms Chesnut’s role as coordinator is now
part-time.

Members of the drug court team are
employed by their respective
agencies and they come together to provide medical, emotional and rehabilitative
services.  They come from the Department
of Children and Family Services, Probation and Aftercare, Counselling Services
and the Forensics Lab. Other agencies, such as the Department of Employment Relations,
may be asked to assist.

  The lab
is involved because drug court clients, must submit to drug screenings in the
form of urine analyses. Initially, the test may be required every week. As the
client progresses through various phases of the programme, the tests will
decrease and then be made on a random basis.

He or she is expected to phone a
designated number and find out if testing is required that week. Compliance shows
an increased sense of responsibility.

By the time a drug court client is
ready to graduate, he or she will be drug-free for six months, be in appropriate
housing and either have a job, be enrolled in school or volunteering.

Drug court participants are told, “You’re
going to contribute to the community in some positive way or you’re not going
to graduate,” Ms Chesnut said.

Because of this requirement and
because the drug court has no operating budget, it needs support from the
community.

“We need employers. We need job
opportunities, even on a part-time basis,” she urged.

The most recent graduation took
place on 25 March. Among those in the audience were Attorney Winston Connolly
and Coach Voot O’Garro.

Each man separately endorsed the
programme as a realistic way of dealing with a very real problem in society.  Their perspectives were different, but – without
prompting – they both mentioned love.

They saw pride, joy and love in the
faces of the graduates and their family members. One woman reported how happy
she was being able to sit with her husband and talk about their children or
household bills and just being in a normal relationship.

Mr. O’Garro said he has had
dealings with kids with drug problems. In his experience, they are often
abandoned, or feel that they are, and take comfort in drugs. “With proper care
and love, they can be reunited into society,” he said.

For most drug addicts, their
addiction wasn’t something they intended. Once they make an effort to get back
on track, they deserve a break. “We may be disappointed in their previous
behaviour, but we have to give them a chance,” Mr. O’Garro said.

Mr. Connolly attended the
graduation because he is president of Rotary Sunrise. This year the club
donated $2,500, with which the treatment team purchased movie tickets, pizza
coupons or book vouchers used as rewards to recognise participants’ progress.

The Rotary Club of Grand Cayman
provides plaques and trophies for successful participants.

“Sitting in the courtroom and
observing the graduates and their families made me think initially of the pain
that drugs can cause to a family and a community,” he said.

He found the gathering to be a cross-section
of the Caymanian population, with different classes, colours, ages and creeds
present. “Everyone was all smiles, but I could imagine the nightmares they had
been through and I could clearly see from this representation that drugs do not
discriminate.”

Mr. Connolly reported that there
were employers in the audience – people who said they had taken a chance on
hiring a drug court participant and, so far, things were working out fine.

“If you give them a job, you’re
helping with the long-term solution,” he pointed out.

If addicts aren’t in a drug
treatment programme, where are they, he asked before supplying his own answers.
 “A- They would be in jail. B- They would
be engaged in something, probably illegal, to feed their habit. C – They’d be
in the obituaries.”

He expressed his admiration for
members of the drug court treatment providers.  “It’s a bit of tough love,” he suggested.

Chief Magistrate Margaret Ramsay-Hale,
who presides over the Tuesday drug court, said some of the graduates had taken
the better part of two years to complete the programme.

“Choosing recovery is not a soft
option for those who enter the drug court and all members of the drug court
team are pleased with the commitment shown by the graduates, and delight in and
are proud of their success,” she said at the recent ceremony.

“The drug court is not only about
ending a defendant’s dependency on drugs but also about restoring him to his
family and his community,” she said.

 “Addiction is not easily overcome and drug
court is not an easy option to choose. I admire the efforts of clients and
their commitments to success. The improvement in the quality of their lives,
and the joy that this brings to their family and friends who freely attest to
this, continues to be a humbling experience for me,” said Magistrate Nova Hall,
who presides over the Thursday drug court.

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