Steamboat Springs This is the last stop for many of the defendants in the drug court.
Faced with a felony and a probation violation, these drug offenders are about to be sent to jail. Or, if they choose, they can participate in an intensive treatment program and follow up with a judge and a team of overseers every two weeks. The drug tests are more frequent — as many as three or four times per week — and the sanctions for failure can include the jail time they were seeking to avoid.
“It’s their last stop before they go to prison,” District Attorney Elizabeth Oldham said. “This is their last stop to turn their life around.”
The drug court program has been active in Moffat County for more than two years, and with newly available state and federal funds, the drug court opened in Routt County this month. A team — with Oldham, District Chief Judge Michael O’Hara III, Chief Probation Officer Dennis Martinez, other probation staff and treatment providers — meets with the screened participants every two weeks. The people invited to the program must be willing to not just fulfill regular probation requirements, but also turn their lives around. That means getting stable housing, paying taxes, having reliable work and not lying to the court.
“We identify people who seem to be having troubles that are related to addiction and say to them, look, if you’re ready to change your life completely, we want to provide some opportunities to allow you to do that; we want to provide tools, and we’re going to spend time with you and give you a lot of encouragement,” O’Hara said. “(But) if you do something wrong, you’re still going to face sanctions because of that.”
Martinez said the drug program is harder to complete than probation, and he has had some clients decline to join, opting for the jail time instead.
Participants first go to an intensive inpatient treatment program in a state-authorized facility in Pueblo, Grand Junction or the Denver area. After that’s done, they return to Steamboat Springs for follow-up sessions with treatment counselors and probation supervision. Martinez said many drug court programs take first-time offenders, but the Moffat and Routt programs, through the 14th Judicial District that encompasses those and Grand County, opted instead to take the more serious offenders.
The Craig program has 12 participants and three graduates. The newer Routt program has three participants with a fourth joining soon. Martinez said two people were removed from the Craig program shortly after their admission — one for becoming involved in criminal activity and another who had to deal with family matters and ended up overdosing out of town before he could rejoin the program.
Eventually, both programs will have about 12 participants as people are admitted and eligible.
Stick and carrot
Along with the constant threat of sanctions, if they violate their end of the contract, drug court participants also are rewarded for their victories. The treats are donated by businesses in Craig and solicited by the Communities Overcoming Meth Abuse organization.
The treats are as varied as a donated ice cream cone, a meal at a restaurant and a refurbished computer donated by a business to help a participant graduate as she returned to school.
Because Routt County doesn’t have a COMA program, the Routt drug court is looking for an organization to help solicit donations for the group. Because they are state workers, many team members cannot directly ask for donations.
More often, participants can be recognized for their successes in front of their peers and their families, which some of the participants bring to the meetings. Such as Alcoholics Anonymous, participants are given tokens for time increments spent sober — a first token after a couple of weeks, and recognition when they have stayed sober longer. O’Hara said that kind of reward can be even more meaningful than objects.
“One of the things that is identified routinely as an incentive that really means a lot to folks in the drug court program is praise, from the judge, probation officer, treatment manager, to say, ‘You’re doing a good job,’” he said.
Craig Police Chief Walt Vanatta said the alternative to jail is just what some people need.
He has been working with the program in Moffat County and has found that some of the familiar faces that were in a cycle of getting arrested, being released and re-offending are on a more stable track.
“I think that we all realize going out and arresting people is not going to cure this issue,” he said. “They need to get off the substance and get their life back together again.”