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Judges attempt to break the cycle

Becky Vargo • Aug 23, 2017 at 10:00 AM

It’s a perpetual cycle that local judges see all too often.

A woman is charged with larceny. The judge denies bond because the woman’s substance abuse issue has not been addressed. At some point, there’s a plea, and the woman gets jail time and is released to in-patient treatment.

During a break, she overdoses and is caught on a probation violation. She goes back to jail and, potentially, to prison.

It happens over and over again, according to Ottawa County Circuit Judge Jon Hulsing.

There are success stories too, Hulsing said.

A woman had showed up for sentencing, expecting to go to jail, the judge said. Hulsing asked her what she had done since overdosing and being arrested more than a year earlier.

“She had put herself through treatment and was working,” he said. “She had a recovery plan in place, as well as parental support. I dismissed her with minimal sentence. She walked out with tears of joy.”

Hulsing said he wanted to reward the woman for her hard work. He said he would do that for anyone who truly wanted to address his or her addiction issues.

The judge shared an encounter in a restaurant last year. A woman approached him and thanked him for putting her husband on probation and into drug court.

The man served his time and is doing great, she told Hulsing. The woman said her marriage was fantastic and her husband was not drinking.

“Every once in a while you hear a success story,” Hulsing said. “There are a lot of them.”

Another example is a 29-year-old Grand Rapids man who said it was the people who pulled him through Ottawa County’s Drug Court program that made him into the successful career man he is today.

Drug court connects people in the criminal justice system with a treatment system, according to Judge Mark Feyen.

“Addicts just can’t stop,” the family court judge said. “They need a different way to recover.”

Referring to the Grand Rapids man mentioned above, Feyen said: “They have this person on probation and he’s a perpetual train wreck.”

The man, whose first name is Robert, said: “I had never been clean for more than a month” in nine years. “I have now been clean for almost three years.”

Robert said the last time he was arrested, he figured he was done and that he would never make more than minimum wage — if he could even get a job when he got out of jail. He had five felonies on his record, including a breaking and entering charge, “all due to my addictions,” he said.

“I was pretty messed up,” Robert said. “I stole $22,000 from my parents and went on a binge.”

When the money ran out, he got caught committing a crime in Kent County. Police found a warrant for the theft out of Ottawa County and shipped him to the Ottawa County Jail.

Robert said he never dreamed his parents would report him, but he was thankful that they did. Even though the drug court program was hard, it was what he really needed to get his life back, he said, but it’s a lifelong process.

“I still do AA. I still meet with my counselors. I still contact Emily (Achterhof, drug court case manager) when I have a problem,” he said.

Despite that, Robert says life is great and it feels good to know that he beat his addiction.

Ottawa County’s Drug Court

 

The National Association of Drug Court Professionals selected Ottawa County’s 20th Judicial Circuit Adult Drug Treatment Court as one of eight National Mentor Courts. A plaque commemorating the honor was awarded in April.

Since the program began in 2005, Ottawa County’s Drug Court has accepted 250 participants, with the majority being white men.

It takes 18 months to complete the program, and that includes 90-plus hours of substance abuse treatment; bi-weekly review hearings; random drug testing 2-3 times a week; random home visits 2-3 times a week; recovery support meetings three times a week; peer support meetings once a week; community service depending on the case; and fines, costs and restitution paid in full.

More than 250 people have participated since the program started in 2005, according to Director Andy Brown. There’s about a 65 percent graduation rate.

And of those who participated, whether they graduated or not, about 73 percent of them are less likely to be re-arrested within three years of being involved with drug court, according to a 2013 study conducted by Grand Valley State University. 

A new study is currently underway, also looking at the success rate of the program, Brown said.

While many people request the help of drug court, participants can only get in by referral.

“We only accept non-violent felony offenders who have substance abuse disorders,” Brown said.

Someone who is charged or convicted of a violent crime — such as armed robbery, assault and criminal sexual conduct — is not eligible for the program, he said.

Once an offender is sentenced and approved for drug court, he or she begins a 90-day residential treatment program or a six-week intensive outpatient program. Participants also have to report to drug court every two weeks, where they are held accountable for the program requirements which include: random drug/alcohol checks, random home checks, meetings with probation officer, review hearings, peer recovery coach meetings, peer recovery support meetings, curfew, completing community service and completing a life plan.

Brown said 30-35 people are generally participating in drug court at any time. There’s been a significant increase in referrals to the court in recent years.

Brown said the county recently obtained a grant, which will allow them to almost double the size of the program for three years, starting in 2018. Because the county’s fiscal year begins in October, Brown said the number of participants should increase to the 50-55 range starting on Oct. 1.

It’s not a perfect answer to the problem. Brown said two people who have been through the program died of alcohol and heroin overdoses in the past six months. 

“We definitely believe that drug court works and helps people remain sober for a longer period of time,” he said. “People are getting services and staying active in services longer.”

Still, he would like to see more funding available for more services.

“There is so much demand,” he said.

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