Second chances mean new lives for Jones County intervention court participants

October 21, 2022

Eleven people who put their lives back together in the 18th District Drug Intervention Court told their stories of loss, despair, struggle and redemption on Oct. 18.

Judge Deborah Gambrell Chambers receives Judicial Excellence Award

Gathered in Laurel for their graduation were their families, friends, employers and court staff. Their guest speaker was the state’s highest judicial officer, Supreme Court Chief Justice Mike Randolph.

A former drug court graduate started the program with prayer, saying, “We thank you for being the God of second chances for people like us.”

Chief Justice Randolph told the graduates, “I couldn’t be more proud of each and every one of you.”

He also told them not to squander their second chances because they won’t get another. “Every one of you got a last chance,” he said.

Circuit Judge Dal Williamson, who supervises the program, thanked Chief Justice Randolph for his support of drug intervention courts and his strong and persistent push for more funding. There will be more money for treatment, which the program hasn’t had before. Some of the graduates needed months of inpatient treatment.

Chief Justice Randolph said drug court funding for years hovered around $5 million a year; current funding is about $9 million. “When I started learning about what was happening with people’s lives, it became a crusade.”

In essays written to the court and in nervous graduation speeches, the 11 graduates described the hopelessness of addiction, lives focused on the next high, spending every dollar they earned and stealing from family to pay for drugs. They talked about being homeless and destitute, alienated from parents, spouses and children.

“I had burned so many bridges that they didn’t want me around, not knowing what I would steal, or harm their families,” said a woman who lived for a while in a minivan.

Another woman took the analogy a step further. “I had burned my bridges and played in the ashes.” She now speaks to church groups about her journey.

Judge Williamson congratulated each of the graduates, telling them, “Overcoming addiction is a challenge. You have done an exemplary job for three years now. In three years’ time, you have laid the foundation of how the rest of your life can be.”

He also reminded them that they will be tempted to slide into addiction again, and urged them to decide now how they will respond. “I’m a firm believer that there is good and evil in the world and the devil is busy,” he said.

Graduates said that in drug court, they found a structured intervention program run by compassionate people who worked hard to help them succeed. They thanked Intervention Court Coordinator Consuelo Walley, Case Manager Kenyada Smith and Judge Williamson, some calling him “Judge Dal.”

The graduates look to them as mentors and role models. One man in blunt terms said Walley made sure that he kept to the program. Another recalled seeing Smith at a local discount store. “She treated me with a warm smile and made me feel like a person.” A young woman whose tragic experiences shattered her self-esteem said she didn’t mind facing the judge for periodic reporting. He complimented her when she made progress. Ever the encourager, he told her as she left the graduation ceremony, “You’re smart. You have a bright future.”

Walley said, “I wish you all could have seen where she was when she started.” The woman recalled being an IV drug user and a “meth mom” living in a shed. Walley said the woman came to her first orientation “so high that she couldn’t stay awake.” She had to leave behind her husband and baby to go into drug rehabilitation for six months.

In rehab, “I learned how to to make your bed, how to take baths everyday....It’s been three yeas, six months and some odd days but I made it,” she said. In her essay, she wrote about owning two cars and a house. “I have a place to call home. It’s even got furniture. I can afford food, clothes.”

Walley said, “We end up having to teach them how to live, how to be a functioning member of the community.”

Graduates thanked God, their drug support groups and their families and friends who supported them through the lowest point of their lives. They thanked their employers and bosses who gave them a chance. Some employers came to watch them graduate.

One graduate now works as a manager at a local fast-food restaurant and hasn’t missed a day of work in nearly four years. The woman who hired him sat at his table during the ceremony.

Another man is a crew leader for a road paving company. He described his own path as a long dark road. His parents were addicts and he started smoking marijuana at age 10. At age 18, his child died of SIDS, and he became a methamphetamine and pills addict to numb the pain. It was a law enforcement roadblock that landed him in drug court at 21. “Little did I know that it was about to change my life.”

Walley said that every day that he and others like him go to work, the people of Jones County see examples of the difference the intervention court makes in people’s lives. Now employers call and ask if they have people needing jobs.

Most of the graduates said they felt blessed and grateful “Thank God for His grace, love and mercy,” said a man who now teaches Sunday School. He’s intent on helping others. “It does us no good to do what we have done if we can’t turn around and extend a hand.”

Graduates described and even marveled at ordinary things that came with being drug-free: being with their families; having a good job, having credit and health insurance; owning a house and a car.

One wrote, “I was able to get my driver’s license back. It’s been seven years since I had one.”

“I didn’t have glasses. I would spend the money on drugs,” said a bespectacled restaurant manager. He recalled being covered in sores that wouldn’t heal as a result of smoking meth, and meth use ruined his teeth. Employment benefits provided health and dental care.

A recurring story was addicts who grew up with addict parents and then used drugs around their own children.

Several described introductions to drugs before they were teenagers. One man said he began drinking alcohol and smoking marijuana at 11 or 12 years old, added pills at 15 and moved to cocaine at 17. All his earnings went to drugs. His wife told him to choose between her and the children or drugs. He chose drugs.

A mother wrote that in her meth addiction, she thought it was OK to send the children outside so that she could get high. Another wrote that she sent the children to their grandparents so that she could get high.

A woman who got addicted to prescription drugs described her self-denial that she was an addict, then her attempts to hide addiction. Her daughters had to distance themselves from her. Her inspiration to get clean came from her 9-year-old daughter, who wrote a note that said, ‘If you love me, you wouldn’t take those pills.”

The woman said that before that, she thought she was just hurting herself. “When you figure out you are hurting every single person around you, you have to realize it’s going to be your family or it’s going to be the drugs.”

Graduates recounted the joy of having their children back in their lives. Several youngsters were at the ceremony. Chief Justice Randolph said that in the past 10 years, 42 participants in the 18th Circuit Intervention Court regained custody or won visitation rights with their children.

Graduates said it takes hard work and dedication to stay away from drugs after living in addiction, even though they know drug use can kill. “I’m sure everyone in this room knows somebody who died due to drugs,” said a graduate who got kicked out of drug court on his first try and went to prison. He got another chance and said he’s grateful.

“Prison really opened up my eyes,” he said. He explained freedom like this: “I like to go to the refrigerator in the middle of the night and make myself a bologna sandwich, or get an ice cream sandwich. You can’t do that in prison.”

Chief Justice Randolph said that the success rate for people staying out of trouble after they complete drug intervention court is far better than for those who leave prison. The recidivism rate for drug courts is 2.9 percent, compared to 35 percent for those who leave prison, he said.

The cost to supervise people in intervention court is a fraction of what it costs to house someone in prison. It costs an average of $18,500 per year to incarcerate one person in state prison. Drug intervention court costs about $1,200 per participant annually. Avoided incarceration costs exceed $823 million statewide between Fiscal Year 2006 and Fiscal Year 2022.

Chief Justice Randolph said one of the most important savings is in lives of participants and their families. During the past 10 years, 12 drug-free babies have been born to participants of the 18the Circuit Intervention Court.

Healthy babies not only have a better future; they also save a tremendous amount of money for state health programs. A Bureau of Justice Statistics study estimates that each healthy, drug-free infant saves the state an average of $750,000 during the first 18 years of life. Twelve drug-free babies save an estimated $9 million. The estimate assumes that without the care provided by intervention courts, drug addicted mothers would have given birth to babies with health issues that would require long-term medical care.

On a statewide level, intervention courts have produced a savings of more than a billion dollars for tax-payers since detailed data began to be kept in Fiscal Year 2006, Chief Justice Randolph said. That includes avoided health care costs for drug-free babies as well as avoided incarceration costs for intervention court participants.

County governments benefit from the incentive for intervention court participants to pay their fines. Participants must pay their fines to be able to graduate. Jones County received fines totaling $548,000 during the past 10 years. Adult intervention court participants statewide paid more than $17 million in fines from FY 2006 through FY 2022.

Chief Justice Randolph noted that the state will soon reach the 10,000 mark of drug court graduates. With the Jones County program graduation, the state’s total of drug court graduates is 9,829 since statewide records were kept.