Court program offers life-changing alternative

By JAMES MITCHELL
Sunday Times Newspapers

TAYLOR — The cost of a multi-faceted drug court program was briefly debated, but one local judge said the proven results cannot be measured in dollars.

“The fact is that people actually change their lives,” 23rd District Court Judge Geno Salomone said. “They become productive members of society.”

Taylor officials approved last month four agreements to partner with the 23rd District Court’s Drug and Sobriety Court programs. Two grants totaling $85,000 were accepted from the state Office of Highway Safety and Michigan Drug Court Program and will help provide drug testing, case management, mental health treatment, alcohol tethers and other services.

There is a cost to the city of approximately $41,000. Based on previous years, Salomone said a projected $50,000 from fines and assessment fees will cover that cost.

Taylor’s Drug and Alcohol Court program was launched in 2004, offering alternative sentence options for offenders facing drug or alcohol-related charges. Rather than being a “softer” sentence, Salomone said the program is more intense than some criminal punishments.

“Instead of regular probation, where you see an officer once a month and have random testing,” Salomone said, “in Drug Court they see a counselor once a week, see the judge every two weeks, and have multiple random drug tests.”

Those enrolled in the program are also subject to home visits and must participate in sobriety programs such as Alcoholics Anonymous. Salomone described a “team approach” using outside services including substance abuse counseling, vocational training or job searches.

“It’s not just about being sober or clean,” Salomone said of the probationary guidelines. “You need to get a job, finish education, get a license if it’s legally available. We’re trying to teach people to act like mature adults, which they’ve never done.”

A final requirement is spending time as a volunteer with the very programs that made graduation possible. “Time to give something back,” Salomone said. “Go to work for a couple of days.”

The proof is in the numbers and the individual testimony. Salomone said that national statistics demonstrate the potential for success. In a 2005 study, less than 30 percent of program participants received any new jail sentences after completing probation requirements, compared to a 51 percent recidivism rate for those given jail rather than treatment options.

“The graduation rates are good,” Salomone said. Between 30 and 40 offenders are currently paroled to the two-year program, and about 170 have participated since 2004, of which 65 percent graduated. A revised admissions policy with improved evaluations was implemented in 2007; since then the program boasts a 73 percent graduation rate.

“Some don’t make it,” Salomone said. “It’s a tough program.”

Salomone said that those who do demonstrate a remarkable personal turnaround. Participants are often from challenging environments with a history of substance abuse and “walking away” from their problems through substance abuse. At a recent graduation ceremony, Salomone spent time with three or four graduates in casual conversation.

“It was just us after everyone had left,” Salomone said. “One guy recently got promoted to a new job with benefits, great pay. He said before the program he probably would have just walked away from the opportunity.

“We talked,” Salomone said, “and I thought: Well, everything is going well there. For the most part, we find people who are succeeding.”

(James Mitchell can be reached at jmitchell@bewickpublications.com.)

Tags: