SNOW HILL – Worcester County’s drug treatment court program celebrates its 15th anniversary this December.
The program, designed to offer treatment to those committing crimes due to substance abuse, has played a key role in helping individuals achieve recovery in Worcester County.
“The program is of utmost importance because punishment alone does not remedy the issue of drug motivated crime,” said Tracy Simpson, the county’s drug court coordinator. “In order to create lasting change and provide the greatest chance at achieving recovery from a substance abuse disorder, intensive treatment is required.”
The Worcester County Drug Treatment Court (DTC) program was launched in December 2005. Participants are given the chance to complete the program in lieu of a full period of incarceration. Simpson said after a jail sentence was imposed, the majority of the period of active incarceration is suspended if an individual enrolls in DTC.
“The program is intended to identify those persons who are committing crimes due to a substance use disorder and offer intensive treatment and supervision to help break the cycle of addiction and related criminal behaviors,” Simpson said. “The program strives to balance the needs of public safety in our community with the treatment needs of the clients served. The goal is to help our participants transition their identity from one of a criminal defendant to that of a productive member of our community.”
She said DTC was meant for “high risk, high need” offenders.
“That means the average person who participates in the program has a moderate to severe substance use disorder and has a high risk to reoffend due to their addiction and past criminal history,” she said. “Often, they have failed to complete prior probationary periods successfully and have been in and out of treatment several times. Many of our program participants have strained family dynamics, due to their substance use, and need assistance with housing and employment upon program entry.”
The DTC program takes a minimum of a year to complete, though the average time to graduate from the program is 18 months. Throughout that period, participants are in behavioral health treatment and are required to provide biweekly random urinalysis. They’re also required to maintain employment, suitable housing, complete community service, attend bimonthly review hearings with the DTC judge and participate in regular case management sessions. A whole team of people, including a judge, program coordinator, case manager, probation agent, assistant state’s attorney, defense counsel and treatment providers, is involved in the process. The group meets before an individual’s DTC review hearings.
“They assess the participants’ compliance with program rules as well as progress in treatment,” Simpson said. “Each DTC hearing offers the team an opportunity to provide incentives, sanctions, and therapeutic responses to help promote behavior change and recovery from their substance use disorder.”
While those involved in drug court receive national and state training, Simpson credits a local steering committee for evaluating the program here in Worcester and helping with program development.
“The real key to the success of a DTC program, and for its participants to find success, is in the partnerships held within the community,” she said. “In addition to those agencies noted as operational team members, the DTC program has forged close relationships with Diakonia, Maryland Coastal Bays, the Atlantic Club, Worcester Warriors Against Opiate Addiction, and Hope4Recovery. Working together with a host of resources provides for not just better program outcomes but also for investments in the success of the community at large.”
Through the years, participation in DTC has varied. Though there have been as many as 85 in the program at once when the opioid epidemic was at its peak, some years there are as few as 30 people in the program. The program’s graduation rate is 55%.
“While opioids continue to be the primary substance of abuse identified by our participants, the courts are not as inundated as they were during the peak of the epidemic,” Simpson said.
Those who don’t complete the DTC program face a violation of probation and are subject to whatever period of incarceration was suspended when they enrolled in the program.
So far, for the first quarter of fiscal year 2021, the program has served 29 individuals. Those involved are hopeful it will continue to play in important role in the community.
“Our DTC program isn’t perfect; we wish we had more resources for our participants, and of course we wish COVID hadn’t taken the toll it did on in-person treatment and court appearances,” said Drug Treatment Court Judge M. Margaret “Peggy” Kent said. “That being said, we all believe that this program is a Worcester County addict’s best chance of achieving, and maintaining, sobriety. Every single team member is invested in each participant, knows their needs, their weaknesses, their strengths, and their backgrounds. We believe that helps us provide the proper services, at the right time, for them. All of us are rooting for them. All of us celebrate their successes, and worry about their relapses. I’m immensely proud of our team members, especially Tracy, who has spear-headed this program from the start, and I am grateful to be part of a vibrant and forward-thinking program.”