Drug Courts in West Virginia - a Solution for the Opioid Crisis?
Eight years ago, Chelsea Carter was facing up to 20 years in federal prison for burglary and conspiracy charges. Instead, her judge sent her to drug court where she was able to get treatment.
She has since completed a master’s degree in counseling and earlier this month, petitioned the Boone County court to expunge her record, a request that was granted. Here’s Carter telling her own story of addiction and how drug court, “saved her life,” as she puts it.
I started doing drugs when I was around 12 because I had got with the wrong people. The girl I did drugs with, her dad was very open about drugs and he would do them with her. So she would come to the playground actually and tell me how they felt. And my mind started wondering how getting high felt.
So I did it one weekend. I went to her house and we smoked pot and drank alcohol and I did my first pill. And it was like nothing I'd ever felt. And it wasn't until about 15, though, when I started doing more pills. Because from about 12 to 15 I drank and smoked weed. But at 15 is when pills started coming more into play because I liked how pot made me feel at the time so I knew pills we're going to continue to make me feel better.
At 16, though, is when I met Oxycontin, which was the love of my life. Lord, there was nothing that ever compared to that. I never wanted anything else really.
At the age of 19, I got with my drug dealer and he had turned me on to doing 10, 15, 20 80s a day. It was like snorting pills all day long was just not having any effect. And I had dabbled in all kinds of drugs, cocaine, meth. Um, I'd been turned onto heroin, heroin wasn't really my thing, though. And it was like a quick fix. I knew what was coming. I felt better the immediate second somebody would call and say I had dope, I felt better. As soon as I had the pill on my hand and I knew I was going to go shoot this fill up I felt better. I had no care in the world that I had track marks all up and down my arms, that I was stealing from everybody. All I cared about at that point was my pill.
I started stealing to get my drugs. I stole off my parents and my grandparents and the people I'd actually got in trouble with were stealing off other people. So they had named us a burglary ring. And I got convicted of two - nighttime burglar and conspiracy to commit nighttime burglary, but I was actually charged with 17 felonies and one misdemeanor.
From then I still didn't get it. I still wasn't willing to change because I liked getting high. And it wasn't like I had a bad life, my family was all good people. I just enjoyed it. But I didn't foresee the consequences, I guess you could say, that was happening before my eyes. So when we got in trouble, the cops surrounded us at Exxon and I had to go talk to them. Well, at that point, judge, I was in school, I was in college, and he said that ‘you can graduate college, but I'm gonna put you on probation.’
So I was still doing drugs. I can't stop. I've done this for 10 years. I'm not going to stop because you're telling me I need to stop. It wasn't until I failed a drug test on September 29 of 2008 that I started to change the way I thought because when you're sitting in a jail cell, you really start to evaluate your life. Is it worth a pill? Is it worth two to 20 years in prison worth an Oxycontin 80?
I was sitting there and in 10 days he let me keep me come out. He said, ‘I'm going to give you two choices. You can either choose to go to Galax that your parents will pay for or you can stay in jail and wait on a home confinement bracelet.’ Well, I know my judge and I knew he’d keep me in jail as long as he could just to teach me a lesson.
So I thought I'd better get out of my own head and do something different. I went to the Life Center of Galax for 30 days, got out, and did intense outpatient. And I've been sober ever since. But it's been stumbling blocks after some stumbling blocks. I've just never chose to go back.
I graduated drug court. I was the third person I think to graduate drug court and then I went on and got my bachelor’s in psychology and my master's in social work and it's just - everything's progressed from there. But I couldn't have done any of this without being sober. None of this would've been possible because if I was still using I would probably be dead.
It just so happens that the judge who sent Carter to drug court is the same one who presided over record expungement eight years later. An expungement is a type of lawsuit in which a first time offender of a prior criminal conviction seeks that the records of that earlier process be sealed, making them unavailable to the public.
"You stand as a testament to what can happen," said Circuit Court Judge William Thomas.
Carter says applying for expungement was an important part of her healing process - allowing her to fully move on from her history.
"I wanted to be able to give other addicts hope that if you pursue something hard enough, hopefully it will come true one day," Carter said.
After Carter went through drug court, she completed her bachelor’s degree and then a master’s in social work, focusing on counseling. She now works with other recovering addicts and is very active in the recovery community.
"There’s a lot of people in this state and in this community and in this nation who say 'why care about drug addicts? Why don’t we just throw them all away?' You’re the reason we don’t,” said Thomas.
Thomas is judge in a busy adult and juvenile drug court in Boone County, two of 48 drug courts in West Virginia, according to the National Association of Drug Court Professionals.
“Our drug court, if you do everything perfect, lasts 12-months," Thomas said. "And they go through different phases where they are required to do counseling, where they are required to submit to a lot of urine drug screens, where they are required to complete community service, we work on their education."
But what drug court attendees aren’t guaranteed is access to is medication assisted treatment. Carter, for instance, detoxed while in jail. Her parents, not the court, then paid for all of her intensive outpatient treatment. A 2017 report titled Neither Justice nor Treatment: Drug Courts in the United States, strongly criticized the system, asserting that drug courts prioritize punishment over treatment and highlighting that individual insurance plans don’t always finance the necessary outpatient treatment programs to make intervention successful.
Drug court advocates say for every dollar invested in the system, taxpayers save more than three in criminal justice costs, including reduced prison costs, reduced revolving-door arrests and trials, and reduced victimization. In late 2017, West Virginia received a 1.4 million dollar federal grant to support the state's drug courts.
“Traditional court is not set to make the person necessarily better - they’re trying to provide a solution,” said Thomas.
For Thomas, a big part of the solution to combating West Virginia’s drug problem is less time in traditional court and more giving people like Carter the opportunity to turn their life around. He said while drug courts don’t work for every individual, they are an important piece of the puzzle. Carter agrees.
"When you enter into drug court like I was, I was dead basically. I had no hopes, no dreams, no ambitions and I could not understand why anybody would want to be sober," Carter said. "I could not understand that for the life of me. But it teaches you why and you meet people and you meet a great support system."
Carter said she still interacts with some of the people she went through drug court with. Every Thursday night, they meet up for a narcotics anonymous meeting. And if one of them has a bad day and feels like they might be slipping off the wagon, it’s the support system that helps keep them in check after drug court has ended.
***Correction: Judge Thomas was initially referred to as Judge Carter.
Appalachia Health News is a project of West Virginia Public Broadcasting, with support from the Marshall Health, Charleston Area Medical Center and WVU Medicine.