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Drug Court Gives Offenders a Second Chance

WAYNESVILLE, Mo. -- Heroin left one woman close to death. At first, she looked at drug court as a scam of the system, a way to make criminals pay fines and as a way to extract information from participants to convict them. But, she says, now she sees the team that makes up drug court and the other participants who have helped save her in more than one way.
WAYNESVILLE, Mo. -- Heroin has been plaguing communities like Pulaski County, ripping apart families and taking lives. But, a second wave of issues it left in its wake are hundreds of crimes, some of them drug related. Others are a result of what the person has done to fuel their drug habit.

Heroin left one woman close to death. At first, she looked at drug court as a scam of the system, a way to make criminals pay fines and as a way to extract information from participants to convict them.

But, she says now she sees a group of people; the team that makes up drug court and the other participants who have helped save her in more than one way.

Drug court may be like no other courtroom you've seen or heard before.

"Well you're doing great," said Judge Colin Long from the stand with smile as one of the participants checks in with details of their week.

These participants know each other from coming week after week. There's a lot of joking, a lot of laughter, but don't be fooled, there are also nerves.

These participants might be days or weeks out of drug use, including heroin, meth, illegal prescription opiates.

Mandatory drug testing reveals that some haven't put their addiction in the past.

"Four drug charges for heroin and meth," says 28-year-old Nakia Lewis.

Lewis landed in drug court after years of drug abuse.

"I was addicted to meth for 11 years and I did heroin for like six," explains Lewis.

Lewis says she had nothing left to lose after overdosing on heroin in January 2013.

"I lost my family, my kid still to this day I'm trying to fix that,” says Lewis. “I overdosed. That was like in January. My mom, that was the end of it. She just couldn't handle it. She couldn't find me for three days. My friends left me in a parking lot to die. And her regulars from her restaurant called an ambulance and got me to ICU."

Later, even the Pulaski County Drug Court panel questions whether or not Lewis could hack it.

"At first, they all voted no for me to come into this program," says Lewis.

Even then, Nakia still wasn't convinced about drug court.

"I felt like they were all against me, that this was a money scam,” says Lewis.

Pulaski County Judge Colin Long says, frankly, there is risk on both sides.

"It's a high risk, high need participant,” says Long. “The purpose of drug court is to rehabilitate the offender."

The court is also designed to help protect the community and ease prison overcrowding.

"We've noticed that drugs are fueling a lot of crime around this county,” says Long.

He says the participants undergo a rigorous program.

"They are required to come to court every week,” says Long. “They're required to meet with their probation and parole officer every week. They're subject to frequent and sustained drug testing."

Each participant is also assigned a tracker specific to their gender.

"All of our participants have a curfew. 9 o'clock is our curfew,” Long says. “So our trackers go out to make sure that everybody that is participating in our court complies with our curfews, they also do job checks to make sure that they are at their employment when they are supposed to be there."

Before each person is seen in drug court a panel meets that includes the prosecutor, defense attorneys, probation officers counselors, trackers and anyone else involved in their case. They weigh in on how they're progressing.

"You're okay with it as long as she's making something," said the counselor involved in the program around a table flanked by the entire team.

The counselor was weighing in on the prosecutor's concern that one participant was not making restitution payments.

This panel goes over specific details of each participant. Their attitude, are they paying restitution to victims, are they active in their recovery and the list goes on and on.

Long says he would he has something to say to anyone who would suggest to lock them up and throw away the key.

"The easy thing to do is to probably put somebody away and to sentence them to prison,” he says. “The hard thing to do is to spend three years with them or two years, monitor them weekly in their progress and then make sure that they're getting better."

During open court Long asks one participant about receiving her tax return and what her plans are for the money. The participant says she will keep a little and put some in savings. A male relative stands up and says he is going to help her.

"You know why we would be concerned about you having that big sum of money?" Long asks.

The participant responds with a nod.

Another participant tells the judge enthusiastically she is ready to go to prison. For some, in this courtroom, being is incarcerated is the only time they have been clean in years. For some, prison offers structure and rehabilitation.

Long says many of the offenders have burned all of their bridges with family, friends and the community by the time they are sitting on the benches in drug court.

But, Long says, as they fight their addiction, regain their lives and rebuild trust families feel more confident returning especially now that there is another support system in place.

Lewis says the support of the drug court team and the other participants is helping her pull her life from the ashes and helping rebuild her relationship with her mother and 12-year-old daughter.

"You can really drag a person down,” says Lewis. “Just by watching you destroy your life."

Lewis says drug court shows how much damage heroin can do to the user, their family, friends and the community.

"It's not just an enemy that takes you the person that's using, it takes everybody around you. It's like a ripple effect," says Lewis.

At 10 months sober, Lewis says she struggles daily.

Long says she's not alone.

There is no illusion that everyone that comes through the doors of this courtroom will be successful. But, Long says everyone, the recovering addicts, the Drug Court panel and even the participants that falter want to save these lives.

"Our participants will tell you, I'm worth it. I know I'm worth it,” says Long. "Please don't give up on me. And that's the thing. We're not giving up on these participants."

Lewis is now able to spend weekend with her 12-year-old daughter.

She says for the first time she's making and reaching goals. She has a job and a house and is rebuilding her relationships with her family. Her mother was just recently diagnosed with breast cancer and she says now, more than ever, she has to be clean and there for her mother.

Long says participants are required to get their GEDs and then encouraged to go on to college.

He says studies they have done shown a savings to taxpayers compared to putting participants in jail.

Long says drug court participants also have much less of a chance of re-offending.

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