Drug Treatment Court helps high risk, high need participants change their lives

Published: Jan. 28, 2019 at 7:31 AM EST
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The Harrisonburg-Rockingham Drug Treatment Court is an alternative approach for people with chronic drug or alcohol addiction. The two-year program has about twenty participants.

Before December of 2017, for these offenders, jail was the only option.

But this court focuses on giving people another route.

It is a community effort at all levels, from Judge Bruce D. Albertson to Commonwealth's Attorney Marsha Garst, members of law enforcement, the Community Service Board, and the defense attorney for each applicant.

The Rockingham County Board of Supervisors and the Harrisonburg City Council assist with financial funding and public support, and are helped by state grants as well.

The participants are classified as high risk, high need, or those more likely to re-offend.

We spoke with Jimmy Gibson, who had been addicted to drugs for more than twenty years, but has been sober for months now.

"I was in and out of trouble, in and out of prison," said Gibson. "I guess drugs was my way out; I started using when I was about 12."

Gibson was taken from his biological parents at a young age and was in and out of foster care and group homes.

"That's just all I've known. I'm 35 now," said Gibson.

His longest stint in prison was four and half years.

"I was addicted to anything that changed my thought process. Anything, didn't matter what it was, whether it was marijuana, or meth, or pills," he said.

The five months in this program are the longest Gibson has ever been clean.

"Being sober and doing the right thing, I've seen how it pays off for me, and everything good that comes from it, and I like that," said Gibson. "You have to change the people, places, and things if you really want it. And this program, you have to want it!"

Each plan is tailored to that person and their individual situation.

"You can incarcerate people repeatedly, but they're not getting better," said Harrisonburg City and Rockingham County Commonwealth's Attorney Marsha Garst. "This is a structured environment where they report and actually come in and see Court Services."

Garst traveled to other jurisdictions, studying their court systems. She calls the Drug Treatment Court a bargain.

"Our jail is very crowded," said Garst. "This is an opportunity for non-violent offenders to actually be out, be getting better, and contributing, to make a situation where you're not a burden on taxpayers."

Comparatively, incarceration in the Rockingham County jail costs about $60 a day, and Rockingham County Sheriff Bryan Hutcheson says thousands of dollars are spent on medication each month on top of the cost to house, feed, and transport inmates.

The program has multiple phases, with classes such as Moral Recognition Therapy.

"Sometimes, when you're so drug-addicted, you kinda forget what's right and what's wrong," said Garst. "You go back and learn what you were taught in kindergarten and Sunday school."

Other classes include "Decisions" and "Strategies."

"You learn real life scenarios," said Garst.

Gibson called the program "intense," and said he was in Harrisonburg for classes five days a week.

Participants are drug-tested twice a week every week, no matter what phase they are in.

"There's still triggers and cravings from time to time, but with this program and the classes, I've found out ways to work through them," said Gibson.

Mental health is another concern. Garst said it is a crisis in the prison system, and cited the importance of the Intensive Outpatient Therapy the program provides.

Gibson agreed on the importance of having a counselor.

"With addiction, maybe not everyone, but I'd say at least 90 to 95% comes the mental health thing," said Gibson. "Because we're all getting high to block something. We do it because it feels good, but we also do it to fog something. To not have to think about the next bill, or anything like that, you know? It comes with depression and anxiety."

He thanked not only his doctors at the Community Services Board, but also the director of the program, Cary Justice.

"She really cares, it's not just a job to her. I've texted her at two in the morning and she's answered," said Gibson.

The court is a collaborative effort, with everyone focused on what's best for each case.

"People that I've seen go to jail repeatedly are finally clean," said Garst. "It's a big bonus to see that in my position, when I don't usually get to see a happy ending."

A happy ending is what Gibson is hoping for, now that he's seeing things with clear vision after hearing his family's cries for help.

"My youngest was like, 'Daddy, please don't go away again, please don't go away again,'" said Gibson. "I have my fiancee, she's in my corner. She is an amazing woman. Now, I walk around, I have money in my pocket! My family has everything they need, bills are paid."

The court is a two-year program, and the first person will graduate at the end of 2019.

"We have some people who are so close," said Garst. "And you root for them. You root for them."

People must apply to be part of the program, and the program is primarily for offenders accused of violating probation, according to the Operating Manual. A prior conviction or pending charge of a violent offense disqualifies participants, as well as any prior conviction or pending charge for distribution or possession with intent to distribute certain substances within the last five years.

There are five total phases, and to reach the fifth phase, participants must be in the program for a minimum of six months.

The Court also implements sanctions for participant noncompliance and incentives for positive screenings and other successes.

Garst hopes to eventually double the court size to forty members, thanks to a grant from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. She also wants to focus on housing for participants.