Carter County drug court staff seeks to rebrand program amid low participation

Sierra Rains

Studies show that around 85% to 95% of inmates who are drug abusers before they entered prison will relapse upon release.

“We’re finding that when people do go to prison and they’re released from prison, that 60% to 80% of them, they do commit new crimes,” said District 20 Drug Court Executive Director John Terry.

Whereas drug court participants have an extremely low re-incarceration rate. According to one study, three years after graduating only 6.5% of drug court participants were re-incarcerated for new offenses, Terry said.

However, the effects that officials feared State Question 780, a criminal justice reform measure which changed certain non-violent drug and theft-related crimes from felonies to misdemeanors, would have on the drug court system have not lessened, and participation rates and funding remains limited.

Amid the seemingly bleak picture for the drug court, however, is a new group of staff members looking to rebrand and expand its services.

After facing his own battles with substance abuse, David Tolbert graduated from the 20th District Drug Court in December of 2018. “It was overwhelming and nerve wracking at some points, but overall my experience as a participant in drug court was very good,” he said.

The program provided Tolbert with the structure and accountability he needed in his own recovery, and now he applies what he has learned through that experience as a case manager and compliance officer for the drug court.

Tolbert is one of three new members voted onto the board of directors last winter. The three members make up half of the board with a total of six members who are seeking to take the drug court in another direction, shifting away from the idea that it is solely a punishment.

“Restoring families really is what drug court is all about. It’s not necessarily a means for someone to get out of a criminal offense,” Terry said. “It’s an opportunity for them to accept — to be clean and sober — to accept that life of recovery and to really work towards restoring their lives with their families.”

Like Tolbert, many of the new members bring something different to the board in that they have their own recovery stories.

“We have a different level of understanding as participants than some of them who maybe have not gone through it would have,” Tolbert said. “It helps show people that ‘You know what, they did it, so can we.’ It also helps with the longevity of the program.”

Following the staffing changes, the board has been exploring ways to expand the drug court’s services to address some of the short falls SQ 780 created in the system and increase mental health services.

Drug court was designed to help people that are at least two time convicted felons and are non-violent. The program helps them stay clean and holds them accountable through regular drug tests and counseling.

Under SQ 780, many of those drug-related offenses, including possession of meth, heroin and cocaine, are now misdemeanors — resulting in a large chunk of the once eligible participants now continuously cycling through the county jail.

Carter County Sheriff Chris Bryant said the county jail is no stranger to this problem.

State Question 781 made it so that the money saved by reclassifying certain property and drug crimes as misdemeanors, as is outlined in SQ 780, would be used to fund rehabilitative programs throughout Oklahoma, including substance abuse and mental health treatment programs.

While the funds received from the measure have helped the district drug court maintain its preexisting mental health programs, Terry said the growth the board is seeking may be difficult.

Last year, Terry said the district was provided with funding from the Oklahoma Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services to create a mental health court. However, due to personnel changes, he said the idea was tabled for the time being.

Though still just a “dream” at the moment, Terry said the new board is hoping to approach the idea of establishing a mental health court.

According to ODMHSAS, graduates of mental health courts are nearly eight times less likely to become incarcerated compared to released inmates. Program graduates also have seen a 60% drop in unemployment, a 97% decrease in arrests and an 89% decrease in the number of days spent in jail.

Expanding services into specialty courts, such as misdemeanor courts, DUI courts and mental health courts would benefit not only the participants, but the community.

On average, Terry said it costs the state of Oklahoma $19,000 per year to incarcerate an individual. In comparison, the average cost for a drug court participant is $5,000 per year.

Five years after graduating, drug court participants have been shown to bring in almost $24 million in tax revenue to the state, Terry said.

Though the participation levels in the 20th District Drug Court have remained low, dropping nearly 65% since SQ 780 went into effect in Nov. 2017, Terry said he believes the present numbers are not truly reflective of the power of the program and what the board members are going to be able to accomplish.

Going forward, Terry said he and the board members are looking at working with the district judge, district attorney and mental health providers in the community to obtain the goals they’ve outlined and further grants and funding.