WINCHESTER — With her father in prison and her mother on drugs, Melissa Lynn Huntley got hooked on heroin at 15.
“Heroin was my best friend,” Huntley told friends, family and fellow Northwest Regional Adult Drug Court graduates during graduation ceremonies Tuesday. “The needle was my constant companion.”
Huntley, a 35-year-old Winchester resident, and the four other graduates said the court was a lifesaver and thanked court staff for providing discipline, stability and structure. But they also acknowledged that while the court provided tools and an instruction manual, they had to repair their own lives to maintain sobriety.
“You guys are trying to save people’s lives and that’s phenomenal,” said graduate Erica Barnes, a 39-year-old Winchester resident who is planning to become a peer recovery specialist, a state-certified mentor for people in recovery. “I want to have that job of saving people’s lives and the biggest challenge I see with that is to realize that some people don’t want to be saved. Unfortunately, I see that over and over in drug court.”
The court, which began in 2016 as an alternative to incarceration in response to jail and prison overcrowding and the opioid epidemic, is trying to reduce what Barnes has seen. Since its inception, there have been 28 graduates, including the five on Tuesday, and 26 terminations. Terminations are prompted by multiple relapses during the 18-month to two-year program. The court, which underwent a voluntary evaluation last year to improve outcomes and is awaiting the evaluator’s recommendations, is also seeking to reduce relapses and recidivism. Two of the 75 defendants the program served fatally overdosed. Four graduates have been accused or convicted of new crimes. Minus the new graduates, the court has 19 defendants.
The court, which serves Clarke and Frederick counties and Winchester, relies on a risk/reward system. Defendants leave jail when they enter the program and their sentences are deferred. Their sentences are suspended if they graduate but they often face steep sentences if terminated. While in the program, they undergo intense scrutiny and therapy.
The five graduates on Tuesday — Barnes, Huntley along with Robert Arthur Ewers, 58, of Stephenson; Brandon Faber, 30, of Winchester; and Seth Phillip “Justin” Myers, 29, of Winchester — each underwent 250-300 drug tests. They also underwent 400-600 hours of individual and group therapy. And each did a community service project, which is a graduation requirement. The projects raised funds for local nonprofit groups. The graduates have all obtained jobs, independent housing and many have reconciled with their families.
Graduates often say they initially saw the program as a a get-out-of-jail card and at first resented the drug court team, which consists of probation officers, police, prosecutors and public defenders.
But Huntley said she fought to get into the court and knew what was at stake.
“My life was on the line and I was tired and desperate for lasting change,” she said. “Lasting change has to come from within ... Thank you all for saving my life.”