Drug courts work.
Thirteen men and women whose substance abuse issues led to involvement in the criminal justice system stepped onto a stage Thursday to accept graduation certificates from the drug court judges who oversaw their cases in Bowie County, Texas. They shook hands with either 202nd District Judge John Tidwell, 102nd District Judge Jeff Addison or County Court at Law Judge Craig Henry, depending on their assigned court
Bowie County operates felony and misdemeanor specialty courts meant to help those whose law-breaking behavior is rooted in chemical dependency or mental illness. The programs range from the most intensive treatment conducted in a lock-down prison setting to an out-patient approach. Across the state line in Miller County, Ark., similar drug court programs are available for defendants whose criminal conduct is driven by drug abuse.
The drug court and other specialty court programs are staffed by judges, prosecutors, public defenders, probation officers and counselors who work extra hours and become personally invested.
"We are a family," Miller County Circuit Judge Carlton Jones said. "The drug court team and the participants all work together to lend a hand to a struggling participant. Participants have provided transportation to meetings for other participants, provided pep talks and hold one another accountable to the obligations of the program.
Like a family, though, we sometimes encounter conduct that has to be addressed, Jones said. "Sanctions such as demotion, attending more meetings or a weekend in jail have to be issued to correct conduct. In some instances, we may determine that a longer stay in a rehabilitation program is required. These decisions are not made without input from the whole drug court team."
At the opening of Bowie County's ceremony Thursday, Tidwell said that 85 percent of people placed on probation admit to current or past drug use and 50 percent disclose problems with mental health. Tidwell said Bowie County's specialty courts have served more than 2,000 since inception in 2005. Of those who participated in a drug court program in Bowie County in 2015, 90 percent are living drug-free, productive lives, Tidwell said.
Tidwell and Jones both said drug court is hard but rewarding.
"Drug court has afforded me an opportunity to meet some amazing individuals who exhibit the true meaning of the word perseverance. Those individuals entering the program have a significant history of use of controlled substance leading to criminal incidences. A history of arrests, incarceration, and failure in substance abuse programs is the norm, but those who enter the program see it as a means to end this cycle," Jones said. "It takes hard work to complete the program. The AA/NA meetings, the group sessions, reporting to a PO and a drug counselor all while maintaining employment and, many times, caring for family, requires a lot of effort to be successful. Yet, the successful drug court participants do it with a sense of determination and are happy to be involved in the program."
This may be the first real successful outcome for many of the individuals who graduate, Jones said.
Joey Elliott told the crowd at Thursday's specialty court gathering that her probation officer chose a sobriety date for her in June 2006 when he sent her to jail. She said she hopes her words reach "the person who thinks they can't make it, who feels there is no way they can do it."
Joey, the event's keynote speaker, said she began using alcohol and meth to feel comfortable with herself and other people. Elliott was a successful hairstylist who functioned for years while using before her drug addiction cost her a business, her home, her car and her hope for the future.
"I thought I was just going to be a thug," Joey said. "Now I'm addicted to recovery."
Joey described walking along a roadway, picking up cigarette butts to smoke because her pockets were empty. Elliott spoke of her probation officer and Terri Giles, Bowie County's Chief Probation Officer, and the way her relationships with them have changed from tumultuous and conflicted encounters to treasured friendships. Joey said that while newly sober she was outwardly difficult and challenged those with authority over her.
"But on the inside I was like, 'Help me,'" she said.
Joey recalled being a participant in Addison's drug court and years later being sworn in by him as a Court Appointed Special Advocate. CASA volunteers advocate for children in court who are involved in the foster care system. She now works for CASA in an administrative capacity.
She credits the drug court system for her success.
"Stick and stay. Do this thing," Joey said to the drug court participants in the audience. "Give it a chance.
Jill White's stunning looks and stylish appearance illustrate addiction's ability to affect individuals of any socio-economic group, any race, and any gender. Addiction is a disease that doesn't discriminate. Those who've experienced severe emotional trauma may be more vulnerable. Like many women with addiction, Jill suffered sexual abuse as a child.
She started abusing alcohol in her teens and later developed a full-blown addiction to methamphetamine which devastated her life.
"At first it was fun, and then I woke up one morning and realized my addictions owned my very soul," Jill said. "The drinking and using once served a purpose for me. It brought freedom, clarity, peace of mind, and escape. I don't really remember the exact point when my 'solution' became my problem. My means of escape had ironically become my own personal prison."
Jill looks back on her past as she looks forward to the future and enjoys the moments she now lives sober.
"I lost everything I had. I was homeless," Jill said as she bounced an active toddler on her lap. "People make snap judgments because of the way I look. They have no idea what I've been through."
A 2017 graduate of a Bowie County drug court, Jill clearly adores her young daughter and describes her children as her "whole world."
"I'm three-and-a-half years sober now," Jill said.
Before drug court, parenting wasn't an option.
Jill's parents, who live in a beautiful home, paid for her to go to private rehab centers but Jill always went back to meth. She got arrested and was offered probation.
"I needed more. I needed something more intense and long term," Jill said. "You feel so alone when you're sobering up. There's so much guilt and shame. You realize you don't have a house, a car, you haven't been taking care of family."
Jill believes forgiveness is essential to recovery.
"You have to forgive yourself. That's a very important key to recovery. Everybody is worth saving and everybody deserves a chance," Jill said.
Jill completed a court-ordered treatment program which includes months and months of follow-up care, group meetings, counseling, drug testing and relapse prevention classes.
"Getting in trouble saved my life," Jill said.
"It was time for a solution, and God allowed my poor decisions to be my saving grace," Jill said, noting that her faith is a major component of her sobriety. "Addiction is a crafty, relentless, seemingly unmovable force, but put addiction in the ring with God and it's a joke."
Once she moved into recovery, Jill set the goal of acquiring gainful employment, a target that is harder to hit with a sketchy work history and a criminal conviction. Jill applied repeatedly for a job with the same clinic where she now performs medical billing. When she finally landed an interview she was honest about her past and pleaded for a chance.
Jill was still on probation when she was interviewed for this story last week. But that changed Thursday evening.
Jill volunteered to help set up for Bowie County's specialty court graduation ceremony in the atrium of First Baptist Church in Texarkana, Texas, and was seated in the audience as others stepped forward to receive graduation certificates like the one she earned a couple of years ago. Before the event closed, 202nd District Judge John Tidwell announced to the crowd that he signed an order granting Jill an early discharge from her probation.
Jill's involvement with Celebrate Recovery, a Christian-based organization, won't end just because her probation has.
"I feel at home there," Jill said. "They don't judge you."
Jill is passionate about helping other people fighting addiction in themselves or their loved ones.
"It is very important to change your people, your places, your things when you are in recovery. If you don't, you will fall back into your old ways," Jill said. "I hope someone will read this and have hope to overcome their own addiction. You can do it, and you are so worth it."
Michelle Smith spent a decade on the streets of Texarkana supporting her addiction to meth through prostitution and drug dealing. At one time she had a pimp who kept her high while he turned her out.
Today Michelle marvels that she can afford a manicure, owns a car, has a nice place to live and is in management at a local business. She gives much of the credit to the drug court program she completed in Miller County, Ark., and praised her Celebrate Recovery group.
Michelle was working at a Burger King in a Texas city when she was taken into custody on drug-related charges filed in Miller County. When she got out of jail in Texarkana, her only clothing was the Burger King uniform she was wearing at the time of her arrest. Homeless, she returned to a familiar "trap house" where she survived without water or electricity amid other addicts actively using drugs in her presence.
Michelle walked for miles to her first meeting with Miller County's drug court counselor, Staci Marshall.
"Ms. Marshall taught me how to live on life's terms without drugs," Michelle said. "The drug court team is awesome."
When Michelle made that first visit, wearing her Burger King uniform left over from a job she no longer had, she was given support, rules to follow and a few things to help her get by.
"They took me under their wing," Michelle said. "They gave me food, clothes, underwear and socks."
A friend took her to a Burger King on Richmond Road and Michelle—in her old Burger King uniform—told her story honestly to the general manager. The following Monday she started work there. Michelle walked from the trap house near the downtown Texarkana area to her job on Richmond Road and to meetings with probation and drug court until someone got a church to donate funds used to buy her a bicycle. She moved from the trap house to a boarding house where she recognized many residents from her life on the streets. It was better than the drug house though a less-than-optimal living situation.
A friend who helped sponsor Michelle as she worked in recovery donated a car to her.
"The car's name is 'Hope,'" Michelle said.
Michelle stayed clean and kept working. Eventually she transferred from the Richmond Road location to a Burger King store closer to the house where she now lives with a "fenced-in yard."
"When you come up to the pulpit (podium) before Judge Jones, he says, 'I see you passed all your tests, you have a job, you're going to your classes and your meetings,' and he will tell you how proud he is of you," Michelle said. "They're not just a probation officer, a drug counselor, a public defender and a judge. You begin to see them as human beings. They don't look down on us for what we did."
Michelle recently gave a speech at a meeting of drug court professionals in Little Rock about her experience. She has dreams of someday opening a transition house for women leaving jail with no place to go who want to get off drugs and off the streets.
Michelle sponsors other women working 12-step programs and leads a group at Celebrate Recovery. She advises fellow addicts thinking of changing their lives to "take everything you had put into getting high and start putting it into getting clean."
"Remember, you can't do it on your own," Michelle said. "I don't care who you are. You can't do it alone."