Courting sobriety

The Northwest Regional Adult Drug Treatment Court in Winchester is one of 39 adult drug treatment courts in Virginia with 10 added in the last three years in response to the opiate epidemic. Besides lessening addiction, the courts are designed to reduce jail and prison overcrowding and recidivism.

* Each defendant accepted into drug court saves the state $19,234 annually compared to traditional case processing and adult drug courts saved the state $10.7 million in the 2019 fiscal year. 

* In the 2019 fiscal year, there were 1,577 defendants statewide with 558 defendants graduating or terminated. There were 260 graduates (46%) and 298 defendants terminated (54%).

* Graduates stayed in the program an average of 21 months with terminated defendants leaving in about 11 months.

* The one-year recidivism rate for graduates was 6% compared to 16% for terminated defendants. The two-year rate was 18% compared to 37%. The three-year rate was nearly 25% compared to nearly 48%.

Source: Virginia Drug Treatment Court Dockets 2019 Annual Report

WINCHESTER — Less than a year after graduating from drug court, Zachary Michael McBreen stood before Judge Alexander R. Iden in Frederick County Circuit Court in May to be sentenced on a probation revocation for marijuana dealing.

The 32-year-old McBreen told Iden his 18 months of sobriety were "the best of my life." He blamed his relapse on not going to Alcoholics Anonymous meetings after graduating from the court, officially known as the Northwest Regional Adult Drug Treatment Court. Iden revoked the two-year suspended sentence McBreen received when he pleaded guilty to marijuana dealing in 2017, but encouraged McBreen rather than lecturing him.

"People fall down but they get back up," said Iden, a drug court judge who frequently interacted with McBreen in the past. "Remember all the things you learned in drug court."

To improve daily operations and reduce relapses and recidivism, the court is undergoing an evaluation by Tara Kunkel, a drug court expert who helped establish Virginia's drug courts and has evaluated courts around the nation.

Kunkel, who visited Winchester in July and earlier this month to observe and interview the drug court team and defendants, said she avoids preconceived notions when conducting evaluations. She said the court, which began in August of 2016, is still too new to compare to comparably-sized courts. Kunkel said recidivism studies need to focus on graduates who have been out at least two years, and there are few in Winchester at this point.

So the main focus of her study will be whether the court is using "best practice standards" in daily operations. That includes how defendants are supervised, the kind of drug treatment they get and how drug court team members coordinate with one another.

"It's not about if this program is doing well or not well compared to somewhere else," Kunkel said. "But how is the program operating? How is it functioning and what are the preliminary outcomes of participants? It's going to take a few more years before the program can say completely and fully what its outcomes are."

Areas Kunkel will look at include seeing if the court is admitting the right defendants, whether client incentives and sanctions are effective, as well as whether defendants are getting enough help finding jobs and housing. She'll also assess whether the drug court team is working well together. The evaluation is expected to be completed by January.

Kunkel, who founded the Arlington-based consulting firm Rulo Strategies last year, has extensive drug court experience. She helped write Virginia's drug court standards in 2005, was Virginia Drug Court Association president from 2007-09 and co-directed a statewide evaluation of Virginia's drug courts that was completed in 2012. Kunkel previously served as a senior drug policy adviser with the Department of Justice specializing in overdose prevention initiatives.

In addition to Winchester, Kunkel is evaluating a juvenile drug court in Michigan, a drunken driving court in Nebraska and drug courts in Oregon and Puerto Rico. Kunkel is being paid $25,000 by the Northern Shenandoah Valley Substance Abuse Coalition, which helped form the court.

Lauren Cummings, coalition executive director, stressed the evaluation was voluntary. She said drug courts typically are evaluated within three to five years of their creation to see if they're meeting their goals. "We just want a process evaluation to look at how the court is doing from an outside lens," Cummings said.

Cummings said the court's recidivism rate for graduates is 21% compared to the state rate of 24% and the national average of 27%. While relapses and recidivism are discouraging for defendants and the drug court team, Cummings said they understand addiction hijacks the brain. She noted the coronavirus has exacerbated the problem because it's harder for defendants to attend therapy sessions in person and some have lost their jobs due to the pandemic crashing the economy.

"Addiction is a chronic, relapsing brain disease. It can lessen, but there are times that folks are going to have to reengage in treatment," she said. "It's not a one-size-fits-all [solution]. There's not a magic wand that is going to, quote, unquote, cure everyone of addiction."

With some 2.2 million people in U.S. prisons and jails, drug courts are an alternative to incarceration. Begun in 1989, there are over 3,000 nationally with some 150,000 participants, according to the National Association of Drug Court Professionals. 

In exchange for getting out of jail, defendants plead guilty, but their sentences are deferred. If they graduate from court, they avoid imprisonment, but if terminated, they often face lengthy incarceration.

Winchester's program, which takes city residents and people from Clarke and Frederick counties, lasts 18 to 24 months and involves intense scrutiny. "We're going to be up in your business" is how Iden put it to one defendant entering the court.

Defendants receive individual and group therapy, including anger management and relationship-building. Some receive medication-assisted treatment such as suboxone, a tablet that prevents opiate cravings.

Defendants also receive help with finding employment and housing, which are often challenging because most defendants have criminal records. Participants also do mandatory community service, have curfews and GPS monitoring and are regularly drug tested. Testing is often done during unscheduled visits by two police officers who are part of the drug court team.

At drug court sessions, judges quiz participants about what they've learned in treatment and how their jobs and relations with their family and intimate partners are going. Positive drug tests often result in 24-hour or weekend stays in jail, but long-term sobriety is rewarded with later curfews, less drug testing and less attendance at court sessions. The sessions typically last an hour to 90 minutes.

Not a 'get-out-of-jail-free card'

Drug court proponents stress it is not a "get-out-of-jail-free card." Defendants must be "high risk" and "high-need," meaning they usually have been addicted for much of their lives and often have a limited educational and employment background. In 2018-19, just 690, of the 1,508 referrals were accepted statewide, a rate of about 46%. In its first three years, Winchester's court received 204 referrals with 65 defendants accepted, a 32% rate. Defendants must be nonviolent and screened by probation officers before being allowed in.

"Obviously, in your head, it's avoiding five years in the penitentiary. However, the bigger benefit is getting your life in order and leading a better life," Judge William Warner Eldridge IV told Travis Wade Stotler last month before sentencing him to drug court on a heroin distribution charge. "You're getting an opportunity that not many people get. So don't waste it."

Tim Coyne, area public defender, a drug court team member and one of the court's founders, said at a presentation on the court at Winchester Medical Center in February that the time defendants spend in court is similar to the state average. That's about 21 months for graduates, with terminations occurring after about 11 months. 

The court's annual budget is about $326,000. Tiffany Cadoree, drug court coordinator, said the money comes from the Washington/Baltimore High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area — a division of the Office of National Drug Control Policy — the Virginia Supreme Court, Valley Health System, the city of Winchester and Clarke and Frederick counties.

It costs about $6,000 per year for a drug court client. In comparison, it costs $32,485 annually to house an inmate at the local jail, officially known as the Northwestern Adult Regional Detention Center.

Of the court's 19 graduates, four have been charged with a crime, according to Cadoree. The court, which began with two defendants, has served 71 defendants. There are currently 26 in the court and 24 have been terminated. Cadoree said the intake rate slowed because substance abuse increased during the pandemic and inpatient treatment is harder to find. 

One defendant fatally overdosed in the first year of the court. Another died in a motor vehicle crash. Another man who graduated in April was found dead in his home in Winchester in a suspected overdose earlier this month.A syringe and spoon were found near his body and a woman admitted to using heroin with him, according to a search warrant affidavit filed on Friday.

Cummings said the drug court team took the the man's death hard and she tried to encourage them in an email. 

"We're serving a population that so many in the community have given up on," Cummings said during an online meeting of the Northern Shenandoah Valley Substance Abuse Coalition on Thursday. "The work that we do is important, and it is worth it."

The program was originally a year to 18 months with four phases. But an additional "aftercare" phase was added in 2018 to reduce terminations and better prepare defendants for maintaining sobriety after graduation. The community service component, which includes completing a community service project as a graduation requirement, was added as a way to increase accountability and build character. Communication and coordination among the approximately 20-member drug court team — which includes drug and mental health counselors, two judges, six prosecutors, a few probation officers and a case manager — has also improved, according to Coyne.

"We've grown a lot over the last four years and made some changes," Coyne said. "We've got a really good team in place."

Cadoree said at the presentation that the majority of defendants have been using drugs for most of their lives. It's understood that relapses are often part of recovery. Termination from drug court is a last resort.

Dealing with recovering drug users who often struggle to stay sober is emotionally draining and stressful. In one case, Cadoree said she and Cummings rode around Winchester in a police cruiser looking for a graduate who had relapsed shortly after graduating and whose life was in danger. She's now back in treatment. Despite the challenges, Cadoree said the court wants the toughest cases.

"These yield the greatest success and the greatest rewards," she said. "We are here because we want to be here. We want to help people and we want to change lives."

Cadoree counts graduate Dustin Menefee as a life changed for the better. Like a lot of graduates, Menefee said he was just looking at the court as a way to get out of jail when he joined the program in 2018 after pleading guilty to fentanyl possession. But he thrived in the program and became a model defendant. Menefee, who received 250 drug tests, is the first defendant to graduate without a relapse.

At his Aug. 25 graduation ceremony — his ceremony was delayed due to the coronavirus — Menefee said he benefited from the 311 hours of group therapy he received and the life skills he learned.

"The program has helped me to accept things as they are and never give up on myself," he said. "It taught me coping skills and how to live my life."

Felicia Ann Copeland, who graduated in July, said in an interview that she's also grateful to the court. The 44-year-old Copeland joined the program in 2018 after pleading guilty to oxycodone distribution.  She spent 22 months in the program and had one relapse. Copeland said she took a pain pill out of spite after being told shortly before her graduation was scheduled that it would be delayed. Copeland said the graduation was delayed because she needed to live on her own rather than with her boyfriend, but she wished she'd been told earlier about the requirement. 

Copeland said Cadoree has been supportive, but communication with defendants needs to be improved, and the team needs to be more clear and consistent in its expectations.

"Everything just changes all the time," she said. "That's not good for people in recovery because it makes them want to relapse or go do something stupid." 

Copeland said the team encourages defendants to speak up for themselves at court sessions before the judges, but many are afraid they will be punished for speaking out. 

"They tell you to advocate for yourself, but it seems like it sometimes makes the situation worse," she said. "I've had a lot of people come to me and say that."

While Copeland said her experiences with the court were sometimes difficult, she said she misses the structured environment and wants to take part in monthly alumni meetings that are designed to help graduates stay sober. The meetings are being held online during the pandemic.

"It was a tough program, but I appreciate everything they've done for me," Copeland said. "I don't agree about how some things are done and run, but it's helped me a lot."

— Contact Evan Goodenow at egoodenow@winchesterstar.com

(2) comments

Expeditionary Ops

Lets do the same for our combat wounded veterans rather than locking them up in cages.

Bryan.the.Nuri

What vets are being locked up?

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