SNOW HILL — A young woman wearing a pink tank top and striped yoga pants walks into the Worcester County Circuit Court house carrying her young son, who has likely not yet celebrated his second birthday. The flopping of her flip-flops against her heels reverberate throughout the quiet courtroom as she turns off her cell phone without prompting and accepts a sheet of paper from a court official. She sits down in a section of the courtroom where dozens of other people ranging in ages from 18 to 60 are seated. Some exchange pleasantries while others are poker faced and either staring at a spot on the ceiling or at something in their shoelaces. All of the people are dressed more for the gym or to cut the lawn than they are to appear in court. Many of their faces are glazed in a blank and somewhat vacant stare, but all of the faces in this courtroom are noticeably weathered with countless miles traveled down the wrong road or path.
If you really want to get a true snapshot of what the heroin epidemic in Worcester County looks like, drug court would be a good place to start.
As the woman sits and calms her baby with a pacifier, an officer leads three shackled prisoners into the courtroom and seats them in a different pew to the left of the bench. Entering the courtroom next is a team of lawyers and court coordinators, each carrying larger stacks of case files than the next. Soon, all in the hall will stand as Judge Thomas C. Groton III enters the room, strikes his gavel and starts calling each of the 30 or so people in the hall to the stand one by one.
“You have done all that you need to do this time around with your community service hours, and you are making good progress,” Groton tells one member of the drug court program, “you are moving on to phase 4 of the program, and we’ll see you back here in July. Keep up the good work.”
When the judge’s words are followed by applause, it is seemingly much more jarring and surprising to hear in a courtroom than the image of seeing a child in the same room as men in jumpsuits and shackles, for instance. Yet, as the clapping echoes and resonates off the high ceilings of the regal courtroom, it becomes evident that drug court is a bit different than the lay persons’ likely perceptions.
While right or wrong is still very much black and white here, the drug court program has become a successful conduit that bridges the gap between prosecuting drug related crimes while still treating addiction like a disease that requires long term help. Although it can be unsettling to think that this crowded room of drug court participants only makes up a portion of the entire program, sitting in on one of these sessions is a way to see progress being made by addicts who realize they are running out of chances to stay clean and reboot their lives onto the proper path.
Program Aims To Help Addicts ‘Live Clean Again’
“Last year we served about 80 participants in the drug court program, and this year looks to be about the same,” said Tracy Simpson, Worcester County’s Drug Court Coordinator. “There’s every age range, demographic you can think of in there, and I would say about 95% of the people in the drug court program now are in the program because of heroin.”
The Drug Treatment Court (DTC) is a treatment-based program that offers intensive rehabilitation services to criminal defendants who have committed non-violent crimes driven by addiction. Participants must be Worcester County residents who committed a crime in the county, and agree to complete the entirety of the four-phase program that usually takes at least a year to complete.
“Hardly anyone makes it through in a year,” said Simpson, “but the length of the program for a person always depends on the type of help they are getting and, of course, how serious they are about staying clean.”
The DTC requires mandatory and frequent court appearances, which is why most of the people in this courtroom know each other.
“It’s not just because they are in the program together either,” said Simpson. “Many of them used drugs together too, and now some of them have been incarcerated together, or sitting next to each other once a month in a courtroom.”
Random drug testing, drug treatment counseling sessions and life skill development are all mandatory stipulations of the program, and each participant is assigned an essential drug court team to help with their rehabilitation.
“Since the opiate epidemic has really taken hold, we are finding that many people who live in Worcester County may have committed crimes in other jurisdictions like Wicomico County or Southern Delaware, so their lawyer has to take all that into account and work it out in order to get them in this program here,” said Simpson. “Some of these people that you saw in the courtroom today are on probation in three different counties.”
Furthermore, Simpson says participants must plead guilty and serve some portion of a suspended sentence in jail before going into the drug court program.
“Some of them have a 10-year sentence, where all but 18 months is suspended, because they are getting in the program,” said Simpson. “So, they’ll serve 18 months in jail and then be released to us.”
Each phase of the program is clearly mapped out for the participants and demands structure for everything from curfews, community service and urine screenings to mandated consecutive sober days and housing checks before moving up in the program. In order to graduate, participants must be sober for at least 150 straight days and sober days in jail don’t count.
“If they don’t go to a sober environment while going through this program, we would be doing them a complete disservice to them in their journey towards sobriety,” said Simpson. “That’s why we do the housing checks. It’s tough sometimes too, because in many cases, their families have turned them away and there aren’t enough beds at local shelters to take them in, so in that case, they go back to jail until we find them suitable housing.”
Simpson says there has never been an instance where housing isn’t eventually found for a participant of the program and notes that sitting in jail for a few extra days or weeks is much better than the alternative.
“An extra 30 days or so in jail while waiting for housing is way better than the 10 years in prison they are facing,” she said.
Program Still An Option Even When Relapses Occur
A young man in his early 20’s stands in front of Groton and tries to explain why he’s missed urine screenings, and neglected to provide proof of employment and completion of his community service hours.
“I’ve had transportation problems, your honor,” said the young man, who was holding a change of clothes in his arms for some reason.
Simpson says excuses like this are very popular in drug court, as every overhead story starts with a proclamation of a person’s innocence quickly followed by an excuse of how the requirement couldn’t be met.
The judge tells the young man that he will be incarcerated immediately for failing to adhere to the program’s requirements. The young man bows his head in defeat as he slumps next to the three shackled prisoners who were quietly awaiting their turn.
As he sits, one of the shackled men pats him on the shoulder and tries to console him. It’s no use, as the young man wipes tears from his eyes, but the kindness and the humanity does not go unnoticed, even though the moment passes quickly as the judge moves onto the next name on his long list.
Simpson says relapses are, of course, not condoned, but are recognized as a part of addiction. There is a penalty, but it is not necessarily a cause for getting kicked out of the program. There is also no set number of relapse episodes that will be tolerated either. The judge, ultimately, will speak with the team about the individual and levy a ruling on the participant from there.
That’s perhaps the difference with this program, according to Simpson. It is built for these participants to get the help they need once they decide they want to help themselves.
Back in the courtroom, the young woman with the baby is called to the stand. She sits quietly as the judge praises her positive progress in the program and congratulates her for entering the third phase. She cracks a smile for the first time since entering the courtroom. She stands, shakes Simpson’s hand and walks back to her seat, as the sound of her flip-flops flapping is drowned out by the applause of the other DTC participants in the room. The baby giggles as if the applause is for him, too.
“You get to know all of these people very well as they go through this program,” says Simpson. “Of course, you are pulling for them to beat their addiction, and you get angry at them when they lie to you or they stumble along the way. But, in the end, we want them to graduate from this program, and go out there and live clean again.”