Drug court is one of a few kinds of diversionary programs from prison that may offer a second chance for criminals and reduce criminal justice costs. According to a study from the Washington State Institute for Public Policy, for every $1 invested in drug courts, counties are able to save $27.
Drug courts have also been shown to reduce recidivism, or the incidence of former prisoners re-offending after being released from prison. That number is especially high, almost 77 percent, as estimated by the National Institute of Justice, for offenders who commit drug crimes.
Drug courts function as recovery programs for participants, who interact with a drug court team. The team is made up of a variety of criminal justice and community members, such as a prosecutor, the drug court judge, social workers, and probation officers who work with participants. Participants work through three phases that require different criteria, like passing regular and random drug testing, that must be met for a participant to “phase up” or move onto the next phase. Once the participant successfully completes all of the phases, they are eligible for graduation.
Peer recovery coaches help clients to be successful by connecting them to necessary resources. For example, if an individual needs reliable transportation, a peer recovery coach can help them find public transportation, get them a pass to use that transportation, or help them find housing near transportation if they need to move.
Shasta Bell is a peer recovery coach for Help 4 WV—a resource center for individuals struggling with addiction and mental health issues. Bell works to connect drug court participants with the resources they need to successfully recover while also serving their time in the criminal justice system.
Bell talks below about the experiences that led to her becoming a Peer Recovery Coach.
Peer recovery coaches are vital for an individual’s recovery. Bell’s unique past allows her to be the advocate her clients need. At 19 years old, Bell got into a fight with her mother that led to her moving out of her family’s home and moving in with her boyfriend. The two spent almost an entire decade moving from place to place and battling addiction.
It wasn’t until Bell and her boyfriend moved to New York to try and start over that she said she finally got what she needed. Bell was arrested at work by federal agents.
“That kind of put my life on another path, thank God, because I was probably going to die,” Bell said.
She recalls waking up in her cell at Alderson Federal Prison Camp in Summers County, West Virginia and wanting to start over. It was time to get help. Bell enrolled in the Residential Drug Abuse Program (RDAP), a voluntary prison program for participants who struggle with alcohol or drug abuse. The program is multifaceted, focusing on biological, physiological, and social elements of addiction to foster recovery. Daily programming and weekly community meetings in prison help participants learn about their substance-use disorder while recovering.
Mentors help prisoners in recovery to cope with the cognitive issues that cause individuals to abuse drugs, but they don’t perform the same function as a peer recovery coach. Peer recovery coaches take on more individualized approaches with their clients and work to connect individuals with the resources they need to be successful—like helping a woman file for a divorce, so she’s no longer in a dangerous and toxic relationship.
“With me and the RDAP program there were a lot of us. There were people waiting, but with drug court it’s four or five people and it’s individually based,” Bell said.
The RDAP program didn’t provide Bell with “maintenance skills” that can be applied when a prisoner is released to help her deal with addiction outside of the program. Bell attributes her post-release relapse to a lack of these kinds of skills.
Drug courts and prison recovery programs both serve to rehabilitate those who struggle with addiction issues, but drug courts teach participants other life skills while also focusing on helping individuals to gain education or employment.
Nationally there are 3,545 drug courts. According to Stephanie Bond, the Director of the West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals,West Virginia has 28 Adult Drug Court programs, with 34 individual courts that serve 46 of the 55 counties.
Drug courts require participants to complete a minimum, 12-month program. The program encourages participants to be educated and employed by requiring them to pursue a job or study for their GRE (college entrance exam) during phase two.
Drug court in Monongalia County consists of three phases—each focusing on a different aspect of recovery. During the first phase, participants are required to complete 160 hours of community service, and do nine hours of programming, like individual counseling or other forms of psychiatric support.
Each phase lasts four months, and participants must go before a committee for an interview prior to transitioning to a new phase. Upon the committee’s approval, participants pass onto the next phase which will include a variety of new requirements meant to help participants gain the resources and skills needed to live their lives free of addiction and crime.
Participants in phase one are on home confinement—with the exception of the required programming and community service. Rebecca Moore, the Drug Court Coordinator for Monongalia County, says home confinement isn’t meant to be a punishment as much as a way to help participants with their recovery.
Home confinement can benefit participants by forcing them to focus solely on themselves and their addiction. This also gives them time to work through elements of the recovery without outside influences that could hinder their positive progress. Despite the isolation, participants find community and support through small group meetings. Part of the nine hours each week of outpatient programming consists of meeting with a fellowship or other support group.
Women may also meet in a women’s support group. Moore explained that women can sometimes have the added challenge of motherhood that can make it difficult to be individually focused on their success.
“If the children are school-aged it’s a little easier. It’s very difficult to focus on yourself exclusively,” Moore said.
Having the women’s group programming acts as a community support for these women.
“It’s good when people can meet in gender-exclusive meetings because they talk about different things,” Moore said.
Moore’s educational background, a nursing degree and law degree, shape how she approaches drug court. During the first phase, Moore is especially concerned about the medical needs of participants.
“I focus a lot on their health. Many of them have health concerns that haven’t been addressed,” Moore said.
Moore explained that resource allocation is a critical part of drug court—including helping participants with securing a medical card and receiving regular healthcare.
In addition to therapy sessions and doctors checkups, participants submit to a drug test at least three times every week. They have to get to a day reporting center for drug tests each day that their caller is buzzed.
Transportation can be a real problem. Especially in areas of West Virginia that are exceedingly rural and have limited or no public transportation. Preston County is a prime example of this.
The Buckwheat Express (bus) is the only public transportation, and the bus schedule doesn’t run regular loops. It’s geared towards helping senior citizens in the area with transportation to places like grocery stores and doctors appointments.
However, not having transportation isn’t a valid excuse for missing court appearances, meetings or drug testing.
“You don’t have the option to be lenient [with participants], because they’re in recovery,” said Cherity Shahan, the Preston County Drug Court Coordinator. “They can’t get the services they need if they don’t go.”
Shahan said it can be difficult to decipher the truth from lies when it comes to regular transportation issues. Missing required appointments and drug tests is grounds for punishment.
The drug court team meets before drug court each week to examine the progress participants have made.
Negative performance marks, like missing a meeting, could result in penalties not too dissimilar from a classroom. Individuals may be assigned an essay about how they can improve in the following week.
Phase two is very focused on advancing education and finding steady employment. Individuals still have to do their recovery work—like outpatient programming in therapy and community groups—but also pursue part time work. The goal is to progress to full time work.
Finally, phase three is centered around preventing relapse. This stage is much more “hands-off”, and is the last opportunity before graduation to prove that participants are able to independently manage their recovery.
Support is vital to a person’s recovery. Having a peer recovery coach can be imperative to the success of participants. Especially those who don’t have a lot of outside support.
Women especially need positive support. According to research by the Center for Substance Abuse Treatment, there’s not necessarily a difference in retention between participants based on gender, but women’s treatment issues and needs should be examined closely.
Bell said having negative influences or a lack of strong positive support can make or break an individual’s success.
“A lot of times that’s what it is. Either a cycle they watched their mom go through, a cycle that they’ve watched their whole family go through, or a cycle with relationships that they’re going through.”
Breaking the cycle can be very difficult. Bell talked about how important it is for women with children to break the cycle in order to help prevent their own children from falling victim to it.
“Women who have support are the ones who make it,” Bell said.
Story, video and graphic by Anna Saab