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Better Judgment

'A chance to choose life': For some, drug courts break cycle of addiction and crime

  • Updated
  • 11 min to read
In recovery

Christine Bemis outside her home in Keene on Dec. 30. She says drug court helped her get into long-term recovery from addiction.

By the time Christine Bemis got picked up for selling heroin in March 2018, she barely cared.

Her younger brother, Thomas Rogers, had died of a heroin overdose in Keene the previous October. He had struggled with addiction for years, but had started to turn things around. He had a job and talked of becoming a recovery coach to support others. “I feel like I’m on top of the world, and there’s no clouds,” he said at a vigil that August, two weeks clean. “It’s completely clear, I can see it all.”

Thomas had always been kind and intelligent. Those seven weeks of sobriety brought that out even more, paired with a newfound optimism. “The light came on,” Bemis said.

Losing him hurt more than anything she had felt. She spiraled into self-destruction and despair. Like her brother, she had struggled forever with substance use, numbing her feelings with alcohol and heroin. This time was worse. She would wake up angry to be alive.

“It broke something inside of me that I didn’t think could ever heal,” she said.

After her arrest, she ended up in the Cheshire County jail, where they knew her well. The case manager suggested she enter Cheshire County Drug Court — an intensive program of drug treatment and behavioral therapy, meant as a sort of last chance for people with serious addictions and long rap sheets.

Bemis didn’t want to hear it. Thomas had been several months into drug court when he died. It carried too much pain.

She had serious prison time hanging over her — about four years, she recalled — from prior cases. Bemis, then 33, was ready to do the time.

Then something changed.

“It was a CO at the jail who said to me that maybe part of my purpose was to finish what my brother had started,” she said.

Safety and recovery

Cases like Bemis’ pose a challenge for policymakers. They involve felony offenses with real costs to society, but stem from underlying addictions that have outlasted stints in jail and month-long stays in rehab.

One answer thousands of U.S. jurisdictions have turned to over the past three decades is the drug court model, which combines legal sanctions and supervision with addiction treatment and support services.

“The objective is to protect the community, the safety of the community,” said Cheshire County Superior Court Judge David W. Ruoff. “And the means to that end is to reduce recidivism,” or repeat offending.

New Hampshire now has state-funded drug courts in every county but Sullivan. Cheshire County’s has taken 99 cases, graduating 34, since its founding in 2013, according to program coordinator Alison Welsh. Eighteen are currently enrolled. County officials have found some evidence to suggest it’s reduced reoffending and led to improvements in employment, housing and other outcomes. And graduates said the program helped them cope in healthier ways, reconnect with their children and lay a solid foundation for long-term recovery.

Though it’s an alternative to prison, participants say drug court is anything but easy.

“If you really put the 110 percent in, it can change your life,” said Nicholas Wilbur, 40, of Winchester, who graduated in September 2019.

In the beginning, participants are monitored intensively and required to spend hours each week in individual counseling, group therapy and court sessions, not to mention taking “UAs” — urinalysis drug tests. As participants stay substance-free and meet other objectives, they advance through phases, gaining more independence while being expected to build a support network, find employment, get their GEDs if they never finished school and achieve other life goals meant to aid their long-term recovery. Good behavior is incentivized through rewards; breaking the rules can earn anything from a verbal reprimand to a short time in jail.

Defendants must first plead guilty; drug court is part of their sentence. Graduates can ask for reduced probation. Early termination from the drug court can lead to suspended jail or prison time being imposed.

The program lasts a minimum of a year, and sometimes two years or longer. Practitioners say that gives the brain more time to reset from addiction.

Wilbur said he was ready to change his life by the time he entered drug court in 2018.

With a history of hard drug use that stretched back to his early teens, Wilbur had racked up several felony convictions for property crime. His latest arrest in 2018, according to court records, was for stealing a hammer, drill and grinding wheels from Aubuchon Hardware in Keene. He said he would take merchandise and sell it for drug money as often as he could find a buyer.

While in jail, he asked for drug court. “My life was not changing, and I kept getting the same end results — going to jail over that and hurting the people I loved in my family,” he said. “So I was at a point in my life that I wanted to change.”

Drug court, he said, helped teach him how to deal with life without turning to drugs. “I got a lot of tools out of it,” he said. It was different from short-term treatment programs he had done in the past, which were “just enough to get you sober.” He’s gotten his driver’s license, held down jobs and regained custody of his three kids.

“I had nothing to look forward [to] in my life,” he said. “But now I do, I have all of it to look forward to, you know. It’s so awesome that I have my kids now … things that make me want to be the person I am today.”

Risks and needs

Drug courts are not a catchall solution. When done right, they target a narrow slice of criminal offenders.

People who come into contact with the criminal-justice system not only are charged with all sorts of offenses, but differ in terms of their criminal histories, living situations, ties to the community, substance use and more.

Criminologists talk about two intersecting concepts, “risk” and “need.” Put simply: Does someone have risk factors associated with a greater likelihood of reoffending? And do they have unmet needs — say, for drug treatment or stable housing — that might affect their behavior?

That allows them to differentiate between a young person who makes a dumb mistake, someone with a heroin addiction arrested for possession and someone whose substance use is linked to a long and escalating series of property crimes.

Only that last one would probably be a candidate for drug court. Research indicates that criminal-justice interventions should be tailored to defendants’ risks and needs — and not doing so can be counterproductive.

For lower-risk offenders, the intensive demands of drug court might yank them away from the positive influences that already exist in their lives, like working, attending school or being with family. Meanwhile, they’re spending time around more seasoned criminals. As Ruoff put it, if they mingle “with people who have been to state prison, know how to game the system, know how to lie and how to manipulate, then their risk of recidivating ... goes way up.”

That’s why some scholars describe drug courts as just one piece of a broader framework. Criminal justice systems, they argue, should develop a spectrum of interventions for drug-involved offenders. That might range from drug courts to diverting lower-risk people out of the system entirely — and connecting them with community-based treatment, without ongoing judicial supervision — at an earlier point.

But many U.S. drug courts have ignored those principles. A recent analysis found that minor drug arrests actually went up in cities that implemented drug courts between 1990 and 2006, which the authors attributed to police viewing the programs as a way to process more low-level cases. A 2017 report by the group Physicians for Human Rights found that some New York state drug courts accepted low-risk defendants who showed no signs of drug dependence, subjecting people charged with marijuana possession to lengthy supervision and unnecessary treatment — contrary to the National Association of Drug Court Professionals’ best practices.

N.H. Superior Court Chief Justice Tina L. Nadeau, a longtime advocate of drug courts, said that’s the wrong way to use them.

“The average person who is not involved in the criminal justice system might think drug court is for the first-time offender, somebody who gets one chance to turn their life around,” she said. “And really, drug court is for what we call the high-risk, high-need offender.”

Some drug courts have also been called out for other problematic practices, such as refusing participants access to addiction-treatment medication, having nonclinical staff make medical decisions and jailing people solely for relapse, a natural part of recovery. Those practices all go against the national association’s standards, which Cheshire County says it follows.

Some scholars and advocates have critiqued the drug-court concept more broadly. Physicians for Human Rights raised concerns that they amount to coerced medical treatment and pull resources from less punitive interventions. Calling for investment in treatment outside of the court system, the report criticized what it called “the inherent tension between a punitive criminal justice logic and therapeutic concern for drug court participants as patients.”

Others say drug courts have a role to play, at least in the system we have now.

Ruoff said he wished substance-use disorders could be treated “in a strictly clinical setting, with a hospital, with case workers, with interventionists and the resources that would go along with that.

“But that just doesn’t exist in this state — or really in any state,” he continued. “So the infrastructure that’s charged with dealing with the issue is the criminal justice system, which is, in dealing with any social issue, is clunky at best.”

A (legal) business

Since graduating drug court, Christine Bemis has started an online business reading tarot cards. "I have a legal business," she said, laughing. 

Beginning to succeed

Like so many others who use substances heavily, Christine Bemis experienced childhood trauma. “The first time that I took a drink was when I was 14, and I think it was the first time that I felt relaxed in my entire life,” said Bemis. “And then I just found other substances that worked faster.”

She thought she had life under control for a while. “My house was clean, my kids were fed, I was doing things — never mind that, like, I’m high 24/7 and selling drugs,” she said. Then she lost custody around 2013, in her late 20s.

Life was a daily hell when she used. She got up, got high, then sold drugs until she had the money to get more stuff. She barely slept and moved around constantly. She would get arrested and enter jail “on the brink of death,” severely underweight. One time she was overdosing and had a bad blood infection from injecting drugs. She now sees the hand of God in those arrests, saving her life. Why her, she doesn’t know.

Judges gave her second and third chances. One told her he crossed his fingers for her so much they were calloused. She would try, sometimes staying sober for a few months before slipping back. She learned from those cycles of relapse and recovery. “But I wasn’t willing to do what it took until this time around,” she said. “And it didn’t start off as being willing at all. It just started off as trying to honor my brother’s memory. And then I slowly started to realize that I wasn’t doing it just for him anymore.”

Drug court advocates say one feature of the model is legal pressure that can keep people in treatment long enough to develop their own motivation. It’s understood that they often start drug court just to stay out of prison, said Cheshire County jail superintendent Doug Iosue.

“And as people progress and do well, we see them develop more and more forms of internal motivation,” said Iosue, who has a background in social work. “They see themselves beginning to succeed.”

It doesn’t always take. Because the target population is a challenging one, drug court professionals say it is unrealistic to expect a 100 percent graduation rate — in fact, that could be a sign that a program is cherry-picking the easiest cases, some of whom might not even need to be there at all. As of late 2019, Cheshire County reported a drug-court graduation rate of about 40 percent.

Similarly, perfection is not the goal when it comes to preventing crime. Rather, it’s to meaningfully reduce reoffending from a very high baseline.

An extensive study in Ohio showed that about 59 percent of comparable “high risk” offenders in the criminal justice system overall returned to jail or prison within 12 to 18 months of release. In an analysis of the first 45 people to go through Cheshire County Drug Court — both graduates and people terminated early — Iosue found that 49 percent were re-incarcerated within two to three years. (For graduates alone, the rate was 37 percent.)

Despite a small sample size and other limitations, the findings are consistent with the broader literature. A 2012 statistical analysis, drawing on 92 evaluations of adult drug courts in the United States and a handful of other countries, found they tended to reduce reoffending by about 12 percentage points.

The county says participants have also gained more stable housing, employment, a driver’s license or custody of their kids.

Nongraduates spend an average of 16 months in drug court before being terminated. Welsh, the program coordinator, said she thinks that can still impact people who fail to graduate, or later return to jail. “To me, any treatment they’ve received, any tools they’ve received, has always been a benefit,” she said. “It would be really a lofty goal to say no one’s ever gonna relapse or reoffend.”

Ryan Youngman, 28, of Winchester, entered drug court in 2015, after being arrested for stealing checks and fraudulently cashing them for drug money. He had gotten hooked on pills, “and then there was no more pills, and that’s when I was introduced to heroin,” he said.

Drug court was difficult. Still using at first, he kept returning to jail before getting clean for a while, he said.

“I actually had a life,” he said. He could go places, do things, and not worry about being dopesick. “So after a while, I wanted to be clean, I didn’t want to do the drugs, I was sick of that in-and-out-of-jail thing.”

Then he began drinking, replacing the heroin with alcohol, he said. He’d have stretches of sobriety, then slip up and land back in jail. Eventually, he said, he got sick of it and stopped drinking. He graduated drug court in April 2018, three years after starting. “Butterflies, man,” he said of that day. He was ecstatic to finally complete a program he said had a reputation as the hardest in the state.

Things were good for a while. But he said he started hanging out with old friends who were still using and relapsed. He said he was arrested and jailed for a bit in Massachusetts, then came home and served two months on a probation violation. “Got out, essentially got off probation and then started hanging out with old people again after a while,” he said. “And here I sit now.”

Youngman was speaking by phone from the Cheshire County jail, where he’d been since early December. Keene police said they arrested him driving fentanyl and crack in from Massachusetts and alleged he had been transporting drugs for several months under the direction of a Keene man, who has also been charged.

Youngman said he’s trying to get back into drug court, though he doesn’t know if he’ll be let in. (He wouldn’t be the first to repeat.) He found the individual counseling especially helpful last time, he said. Longer-term, he’s thinking about moving away for a fresh start, maybe down south.

“After having the life of sobriety and all this, I want it,” he said. “I want to be clean. This isn’t what I want. This isn’t my life. This isn’t me.”

'Surrender to Divine Timing'

Christine Bemis holds tarot cards at her home in Keene on Dec. 30.

‘The choice is still ours’

The first months of drug court flew by for Bemis. She’d never had that kind of structure, and the group therapy, community service, 12-step meetings and other commitments kept her busy. When she got to six months, she realized she’d never been sober that long.

She said drug court helped her with everything from getting an apartment and learning basic life skills to taking responsibility for her actions, through a treatment known as moral reconation therapy. She graduated in September 2019.

“My issue wasn’t really drugs or alcohol,” she said. “My issue was that I had an inability to cope with my emotions, so I would always turn to something to block it out.”

Now almost three years into recovery, Bemis is sponsoring other women in drug court. She lives in Keene and has custody of her three kids. Last year, she started an online tarot-card reading business. “I have a legal business,” she said, laughing. She delights in paying bills and other rituals of adulthood.

“If this hadn’t happened, I would either still be using and living in that hell, or I would be dead,” Bemis said. “And that’s how it is with a lot of addicts. When we use, we die. That’s the reality of the situation. It literally is life or death. And drug court kind of gives people a chance to choose life. But ultimately the choice is still ours.”

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In Brattleboro, a new kind of police patrol pushes treatment, not jail

This reporting was supported by a grant from the nonprofit Solutions Journalism Network. The Sentinel retained editorial control.

Paul Cuno-Booth can be reached at 352-1234, extension 1409, or pbooth@keenesentinel.com. Follow him on Twitter @PCunoBoothKS