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'Drug Court Changed My Life.' Counties Turn To Courts As One Way To Battle Opioids

Group of walkers on a path
Anne Danahy

Runners and walkers were cheered across the finish line at a recent charity run in South Williamsport. The goal was not only to win a half-marathon or 10K, but to raise money and awareness to counter addiction.

Among those cheering at the finish line was Dylan. He’ll have been sober for two years in November.

“Drug court changed my life. It saved my life,” he said.

Dylan, who’s in his mid-20s, asked that we only use his first name. He broke his neck when he was 13 and was sent home with prescription painkillers. He says that’s where his addiction started. It wasn’t until he was 20 that he was introduced to heroin.

“And then one day, someone was like, we’ll give you a bag of dope to drive us to Williamsport, and I didn’t even know what it was. I was like, ‘OK,’ ” Dylan said. “The rest is history, you know.”

He started snorting heroin, then ended up shooting it. After going in and out of jail, he went to rehab, but nine months later relapsed, taking acid. He was in drug court, and turned himself in. He told them to send him to prison, but they didn’t.

“They saw something in me that I didn’t see in myself,” he said.

As communities in Pennsylvania continue to look for ways to address opioid addiction, one option is a drug court. When Centre County was starting its new program it looked to Lycoming County, whose program is more than 20 years old. 

Shea Madden is executive director of West Branch Drug & Alcohol Abuse Commission. The commission handles case management for Lycoming and Clinton counties’ drug courts, working with people like Dylan.

“These are high risk, high need individuals that need this kind of structure,” Madden said.

A participant could be someone who is on probation, but tests positive for drug use, or has new charges brought against them.

If they do go into the Drug Court program, that means working with Madden’s office, meeting with the judge every other week, getting treatment, seeing their probation officer, going to self-help meetings. And getting frequent drug or alcohol tests or wearing a patch that can detect use. Participants are in the program for an average of 18 months.

The program is especially intense in the beginning. In exchange, the participant could get a reduced sentence.

“I think most folks would tell you that the program is much harder than sitting in jail and not having the responsibilities and you know the pressure to kind of you know do what they need to do in the program,” Madden said.

Madden has been with the drug court since its start. She says she has seen people transformed.

“It gives me hope for everybody, not just people suffering from substance use disorders, but everybody," Madden said. "If there’s something about you you want to change, you can do it.”

woman at a desk
Credit Anne Danahy / WPSU
Shea Madden is executive director of the West Branch Drug and Alcohol Commission

Many Pennsylvania counties have drug courts. And, according to the National Association of Drug Court Professionals, they save money — from $4,000 to $12,000 dollars a person.

Cathy Arbogast, program administrator for Centre County Drug and Alcohol, helped start the county drug court in January. The goal, she said, is to serve those who are most likely to reoffend. That includes offering structure, resources and guidance to build skills to help them in the long-run.

“The behaviors that we’re seeing, the charges that we’re seeing really stem from an underlying addiction, and coming up with whatever solutions they need to survive and manage the demands of that chronic disease,” she said.

Arbogast said there will always be people who think the approach is too soft. 

“What we’re seeing and what the research has shown is that the success rates for those that come through treatment court programs is much higher than it is for folks on standard supervision,” Arbogast said.

Arbogast said they look to celebrate all levels of success.

“We just recognized someone who had clean urine screens for 30 days; she cannot remember the last time she had 30 days clean.”

The county has nine participants now, and the program is designed to work with as many as 25.

President Judge Pamela Ruest is the judge for the drug court. Centre County has had a DUI court for several years. She said they decided to have a drug court because of the seriousness of the opioid epidemic.

She went to the DUI court program and the participants gave her advice.

“So some of the advice that I’ve received is that I should be open, honest and willing to work with the people involved, that I should have patience. Not one of my virtues, but I am working on that," she said. "Recognize that they’re all individuals, even though they’re all addicts. It was wonderful; I got wonderful advice.”

Ruest said her father was an alcoholic who got treatment, and that helps her cut through some of the stories.

“I’ve heard them. I’ve grown up with them. I’ve heard the excuses. And, I’ve seen the struggles. I’ve seen how you can go a month without drinking and then relapse, or even longer," Ruest said. "It’s a difficult process, but I’ve also seen that it can be done.”

The program has its skeptics.

Rebecca Tiger, associate professor of sociology at Middlebury College, in New York, has studied and written about criminal justice systems and drug policy. She said historically drug problems tend to be made worse by criminal justice responses.

She pointed to approaches other countries are taking, such as decriminalizing drugs or having safe injection centers.

“Those responses don’t demand that someone be abstinent," Tiger said. "It’s at the moment you demand someone be abstinent and you have the force of the criminal justice system against them if they don’t succeed, I think you’ve given over to criminalization, and you’re not helping anyone when you do that.”

Tiger said now is a good moment to think about what could work.

“So, the crisis around opiates, I think, is a really great chance to say, ‘What we’ve done in the past hasn’t worked," Tiger said. "What could we do differently?’”

Matthew Welickovitch was one of the runners in the 5K. To him, “This is a public health emergency.”

Welickovitch is also an assistant public defender in Lycoming County. He’s seen both sides of a treatment court.

Welickovitch applied to the Lycoming County treatment court after getting his third DUI in 10 years and facing a one-year prison sentence. He got kicked out of law school, but was able to go back and finish his degree at Penn State Law.

He now works with people — those who have abused drugs or alcohol — who are in a similar situation to what he went through — getting them involved gives me a passion for my job, for what I do.”

He said turning to harsher incarceration doesn’t work.

“Every study that we look at screams that we need a different approach," Welickovitch said. "Treatment courts are a beginning for that, but there’s still a lot of work to do in our criminal justice system.”

Welickovitch and others say focusing on treatment and getting rid of the stigma are important steps.

This story is part of “Battling Opioids,” a Pennsylvania public media collaboration focused on the opioid crisis.

Anne Danahy has been a reporter at WPSU since fall 2017. Before crossing over to radio, she was a reporter at the Centre Daily Times in State College, Pennsylvania, and she worked in communications at Penn State. She is married with cats.
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