Some Judges Say There Should be an Alternative to Sending Addicts to Prison

May 26, 2015

Drug courts are becoming a more and more popular option for judges dealing with minor drug offenders in West Virginia. Instead of being incarcerated, offenders go through a highly structured, highly monitored rehabilitative process overseen by a probation officer and counselor.

Judge Wants an Alternative to Sending Addicts to Prison

Three years ago, Michael Aloi became a circuit court judge in Marion County.

In his first year on the bench, Judge Aloi became more and more troubled by the number of people he was sending to prison for drug crimes.

“You know, I became a judge to make matters better. And I couldn’t feel good about looking from the bench at those in front of me and responding in such a way that I couldn’t leave the bench and then say, ‘what have I done today that’s made things better in their lives, and made the community safer?’”

Then he heard about drug courts, which have been in some West Virginia counties since 2006.

Drug Courts are an alternative sentencing program. Instead of sending an addict to prison, a judge can chooses offenders to enroll in the program so they can receive addiction treatment.

Offering Treatment to Addicts

“If we treat the underlying condition and people in recovery, then they’re far less likely to commit the same crime,” said Judge Aloi.

Drug court programs take a minimum of one year to complete, though most participants take at least a year and a half to finish. Participants undergo drug counseling, complete community service, take regular drug tests, and check in with a probation officer every day.

In W.Va. 1 in 4 Released Prisoners Return to Crime

Travis Zimmerman is a probation officer on Judge Aloi’s drug court team. He used to work in prisons, where he saw addicts get released and then come right back, when they either couldn’t or refused to get treatment.

“So if you just want to put somebody in jail and you want to lock them up for 5, 10 or 15 years, and not do anything with them and not change anything about how they act when they get out, then don’t expect them to come out any different that when you put them in,” said Zimmerman.

In West Virginia, about 1 in four of the inmates released from prison fall back into the habits that put them there in the first place. That’s far below the national recidivism average of 43%.

Former Addict Talks About Finding Recovery

Officer Zimmerman is in charge of supervising 22 Drug Court participants, including 24 year old Ashley, who was addicted to heroin.

“It destroyed my life. I was put in jail over heroin. I almost lost my children."

Ashley recently regained custody of her three children. She wants them to have the kind of childhood that she never had.

“My mom is also an addict. And my father. And they are also heroin users. My mother’s on probation now, and my father he’s in prison. And my sister is a heroin addict also, and she is also in prison.”

When she was arrested for heroin possession, Ashley went to a 28 day treatment program. When she was released she moved back in with friends who were also drug addicts. Then she failed a drug test and was sent back to prison.

Judge Aloi wanted to send her to longer-term treatment, but she had to wait in jail for five months before a bed opened up.

Changing Friends, Family, Home In Order to Stay Sober

When she got out of treatment, she decided if she was really going to stay off drugs, then she had to leave her old friends and move to a new town.

“It’s probably one of the hardest decisions I’ve ever made. I get homesick still sometimes,” said Ashley.

Judge Aloi says a lot of the people that come through Drug Court don’t have families who can afford rehab.

“And I can’t feel good as a court that we will treat people who are poor, disenfranchised, do not have certain services available to them, different than others of a different socioeconomic group. I think that’s wrong.”

But treating and supervising addicts can be costly.

William Ihlenfeld is the U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of West Virginia. He says Drug Courts  can be very resource intensive for any county, especially in remote areas.

It’s not as easy as saying that we want to do it - we have to make sure the probation office has the people that can supervise the participants in the program. They need to engage and talk to them every day. They need to call them in the evening to make sure they’re not depressed, not high.”

New Law Makes Drug Courts Mandatory in W.Va. by 2016

Now, there are 21 adult drug courts in 38 counties, with three more in development. A law passed by the West Virginia legislature in 2013 requires every judicial circuit in West Virginia offer an adult drug court by July of next year. The law is known as the Justice Reinvestment Act. It’s aimed at taking on the state’s prison overcrowding problems by lowering the mandatory sentences for minor drug crimes and focusing resources on community-based treatment options.

Ihlenfeld says in the long run, these Drug Courts are worth the cost.

“Because the costs of incarceration are much greater. Not just the dollars, but also the cost on society of incarcerating so many people. If we can keep people out of prison, keep them clean, get them back in the workforce then we’re gonna get them out of this storm that we’re in much quicker.”

According to the National Association of Drug Court Professionals, only one in four offenders who go through a drug court program return to prison. Here in West Virginia, some drug courts are even more successful. Jennifer Bailey is the judge in Kanawha County’s program.

“Certainly when you see the people graduate, and you see what they’re doing now, it makes you want to keep going, doing it,” Judge Bailey said.

Recovery Addict's Advice: Be Grateful, See That it's Not Too Late

And Ashley was successful. She got her children back, and now she’s engaged to be married. Still, she says she feels the pull of her old life.

“I mean, it’s not easy at all. Still to this day it’s hard. Like if I see somebody else high, sometimes I’ll get jealous, sometimes I’ll feel sorry for them, and sometimes I’ll get disgusted. You know it depends, day by day. It’s still difficult.”

Still, Ashley says she has hope.

“[In NA] they tell you wait for the miracle. Like it says wait and the miracle will happen. Then you come to realize that you are the miracle. Look what you just went through and you’re alive. There is a purpose for your here on this earth. People just need to step back and look at it. Look how grateful they are for the things they do have still. And that it’s not too late.”

Ashley recently celebrated her first full year of being clean since she was 14 years old. She and her fiancé have a new baby girl on the way. The baby is due just before Ashley graduates from the drug court program.

In the interest of disclosure, Judge Aloi, who was featured in this story, is a close, personal friend of Roxy Todd.

If you want information about where to find help for substance abuse in West Virginia, call 1-866-WV-QUITT, contact your local comprehensive behavioral health center, or visit the The West Virginia Prescription Drug Abuse Solutions Program's website.

For a list of Narcotics Anonymous meetings in West Virginia, click here.