Drug Court celebrating 10th anniversary

Ponca City Now - September 14, 2015 9:25 am

The Kay County Adult Drug Court celebrates its 10th year this month. District Judge Philip A. Ross submitted this article to update the public about this option.

What is Drug Court?

Most citizens are unaware of the Kay County Adult Drug Court. Hopefully, that is because you have no reason to be aware of it through someone you know that has been a participant in drug court. But, the Kay County Adult Drug Court is celebrating its 10th year in operation.

On Sept. 22, 2005, the first session of the drug court was held here in Kay County. Almost all sessions are held in the Ponca City municipal courtroom located at the Public Safety Center. So, let me take this opportunity and say thanks to Denise Rexford and her staff for “opening up” for us and fielding phone calls and to Chief Bohon and his staff for providing police officers when necessary to take participants in custody. Drug Court is held in the Municipal Courtroom to make it more convenient to the participants.

So, what is drug court? First of all it is unlike any court session that you are probably familiar with. I have been to a conference where a speaker referred to is as the “clapping court”. That is because when the participants come to the podium to address the judge the other participants support them by clapping when they announce the number of days of sobriety they have; are recognized for some accomplishment; or read a letter about a subject involved in their recovery.

Drug court is not an adversarial court where attorneys of parties argue their cases. It is a court of accountability. The participants are accountable to the court for their participation in the recovery process that is set up for them to address their drug and alcohol abuse.

It is that drug and alcohol abuse that is the root of their participation in criminal behavior. There are participants in drug court who do not have “drug or alcohol charges.” But, it is clear from their history that drugs and alcohol are the cause of whatever criminal behavior they are charged with.

The purpose of drug court is to integrate alcohol and drug treatment services within the criminal case processing. A participant in drug court is initially recommended to drug court by the District Attorney’s office with the obvious reason being that the defendant is one who has a drug abuse history and is facing a prison sentence for the crimes involved.

All drug court participants are charged with felony crimes. Many have been to prison before. The overarching purpose of drug court is to stop the cycle of recidivism; to get offenders to find ways to address their drug abuse and become responsible citizens.

So how does it work?

In Kay County, when a defendant is identified as a possible candidate for drug court, the District Attorney reaches an agreement with the defendant and their attorney for a plea agreement. That plea agreement involves two things. The first is that the defendant will “graduate” from the Kay County Adult Drug Court. As a reward for graduation, the defendant will receive a probationary sentence. The second thing the defendant does is waive any right to a trial and agrees that if they do not complete drug court then they will serve a predetermined sentence in the Department of Corrections. These generally range from 5 to 20 years.

The next step is the “test drive”. It is a time when the court can judge the suitability of the defendant for the process, and the defendant can judge whether or not they are willing to participate in the drug court process. This lasts for a period of 4 to 8 weeks depending on court scheduling. During the test drive the participant is required to attend all court sessions, begins day reporting, drug testing, attending 12 Step meetings and taking several assessments to determine what treatment protocol is most appropriate for that person.

At the conclusion of the “test drive” the decision is made whether to allow the defendant to participate in Drug Court. If approved, the defendant enters a plea of guilty, waives all trial rights, and then begins the process of working through the phases of Drug Court.

Drug Court consists of five phases. Each phase builds upon the previous phase and is intended to address the continuum of recovery. During the first two phases, lasting approximately six months, the participant comes to court each week. Then in the final three phases they move to two court sessions per month to one per month. The entire process is geared to be completed in 18 months. However, for certain participants who do well, they can complete the process in one year.

They are required in each phase to attend both group and individual counseling sessions. This is the treatment side of Drug Court. Those services are provided by Bridgeway Inc. and its trained counselors. The participants also are assigned community service to be completed during each phase, as well as maintaining full time employment.

For those who are on disability, or some other issue that restricts their employability, they are required to perform 20 hours of community service per week. They also are required to complete a cognitive behavior class know as Moral Reconation Therapy.

There is also an administrative role in Drug Court, headed up by a coordinator who maintains the information on the participants, monitors their payments, and conducts alcohol and drug testing. All of this information is maintained with the Oklahoma Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse which funds a portion of the operation of Drug Court. The remaining portion is offender funded. The average cost for an offender to complete Drug Court is $2,400 between fees to administration and provider costs.

A key component of Drug Court is the close supervision participants receive. In the beginning stages, they have almost daily contact with either the Drug Court Administration office, where they are drug tested up to three times per week, or through the counseling sessions that occur with Bridgeway.

There is also contact at their homes and employment by a field officer who makes site visits. Then once a week, they come before the judge to be held accountable for where they are in their recovery.

Another key component is the “team approach” to the system. Each week before the actual Drug Court session, the team meets to discuss the progress of the participants and formulate a plan to address problems we see. The team consists of the judge, the drug court coordinator, the treatment team member, the District Attorney’s office, a defense attorney and the field officer. Together we make decisions on how to best address each participant and their strengths and weaknesses.

This “hands on” approach by a court is the change that we are beginning to see make a difference in the outcome of sentencing procedures in the criminal justice system.

The tried and failed efforts of sending people to prison as “the solution” has not worked. There is no doubt that prison is necessary for certain offenders from which the public needs to be protected, or have shown they have no intention of conforming to the law or society’s standards.

What we have seen is that many offenders want out of the system, but they need help. They want to carry their head with pride and know their family and friends can trust them and believe in them. Many times that is the first thing they talk about when they begin participation in Drug Court. They are re-connecting with families, especially parents and children. They want normal healthy lives. They want to work and support their family.

So, I can say proudly that being the Drug Court Judge for 10 years has been a tremendous blessing. It is undoubtedly the most rewarding thing I have been able to do in my working life. When I am out and about and I see a Drug Court graduate who is still in recovery, working, smiling and we stop and talk, it makes my day. I am proud to say that we have now graduated over 150 graduates. “Drug Courts Change Lives” is the motto of the National Association of Drug Court Professionals. We are proving that here in Kay County.

You are invited to attend a special 10th Anniversary Graduation and Celebration on Sept. 21 at the Carolyn Renfro Center, located at the North Central Hospice facility on Bradley Street, in Ponca City. The ceremony will commence at 4 p.m. Vice Chief Justice Douglas Combs will deliver a message as well as having graduation ceremonies.


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