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Henrico County Drug Court and Why It Works

“When you cry for me at night now mom, they won’t be tears of sadness anymore – they’ll be tears of joy because your son is ok.” – Henrico County Drug Court graduate, September 20, 2013

Living with addiction is a tough road to travel, especially an addiction that consumes your entire existence and sways all of your choices in its favor. You live a life alienated from friends, family and others who are most important to you. Your personal freedoms disappear. The fear of incarceration never leaves. Those are heavy consequences to bear, but more often than not, these very real consequences are not enough to change decisions made under the influence of a drug addiction.

Drug addiction is a disease that impacts the lives of over 23 million Americans. Diseases often require treatment, and Henrico County has taken a strong proactive stance in dealing with habitual drug offenders. 10 years ago this month, Henrico County’s District Court began a Drug Court program that has helped reverse the often revolving door of probation, failure, and repeated incarceration. This program has demanded more work of judges, court clinicians, as well as the inmates themselves than any other form of probation or parole – and all of those involved will tell you without hesitation – it’s been worth it.

The way that probation is traditionally structured isn’t enough to keep some people on the right track. Here’s an example – if you give a dirty urine screen on probation, it could be at least a month, if not more, until you show up in court to answer for the violation. In the meantime, the license to use is sometimes taken advantage of because there isn’t immediate accountability. For someone who is hopefully turning from substance abuse issues, this doesn’t help them move past their use. It is not uncommon for an individual who knows that they will be incarcerated as a result of a positive screen to continue using because they feel the mistake has already been made, and it won’t make a difference if they continue. This can yield fatal consequences.

In contrast with probation, within the drug court program urine screens are administered up to three times per week so that any usage is able to be addressed immediately. This is both a helpful tool for those who have committed to the program, as well as difficult at times because they are confronted with the consequences of their decisions immediately. While giving a positive drug screen is criteria for lockup, the program realizes that relapse is often a part of the process, and most of the time, second chances are granted. Repeat offenses, however, result in expulsion from the program. Given that many of those incarcerated pursue paths to early release, the drug court program is always in high-demand, and due to strict admission criteria, is very selective of participants.

Drug court meets once per week on Fridays in the Henrico County District Courts building in western Henrico. When the court is called to session, program participants meet to discuss progress as well as infractions, and to monitor that program requirements are being met, such as weekly attendance of group meetings or to insure they are seeking employment. The commitment to the program is all or nothing, requiring full devotion from those enrolled.

Jimmy Christmas, founder and CEO of River City Comprehensive Counseling Services, was one of the Drug Court’s first clinicians. He was given the honor of keynote speaker at September’s Drug Court graduation ceremony, and shared with everyone the 3 C’s that make Drug Court successful – Commitment, Compliance, and Cooperation. “Commitment to this program is a must – you have to be willing to fully invest yourself and your energies to realize success, and no one else can make that commitment for you. Compliance to this program is something that is shared both by participants as well as those who supervise the program – judges, clinicians, and probation officers alike. The program requires compliance in that everyone needs to be willing to put forth and do what is asked of them. The final C is Cooperation – no one gets through this program by doing things their own way. Cooperation with this program allows it to work for you as you work with it.”