Destruction of families. Incarceration. Unstable housing and homelessness. Rock bottom.
“My kids were already gone and out of my care when I got my third drunk driving [offense],” said an emotional Erin Carr. “So clearly, even having my children taken from me wasn’t enough to get me sober.”
Erin participated in and graduated from the Lenawee County Sobriety Court. Since completing the program, Erin has retained custody of her children, gotten married, and maintained a full-time job. She is doing remarkably better than before she went into the program, and is now a productive, flourishing member of the community.
Every day, we interact with people whose lives have been devastated by alcohol, drugs, and mental illness. Often, those who have been living their lives in chaos turn to crime to feed their habits: stealing, drug offenses, or driving under the influence.
In the past, criminal offenses like these have been handled through the traditional court system. This had resulted in lengthy jail or prison time, the removal of children from their homes, increased contact with law enforcement, joblessness, and homelessness for those involved with the criminal justice system. In the last two decades or so, a new approach has been applied to these instances and has resulted in drastically reduced recidivism: the specialty court program.
Specialty Court Program: Why it Works
Lenawee County has three specialty court programs: Sobriety Court, Drug Court, and Enhanced Treatment Court for those with mental illness. The purpose of specialty courts like those in Lenawee County is to allow offenders whose crimes stem from alcohol, drugs, or mental illness to have a chance to improve their lives and become healthy members of the community again. These specialty courts are treatment-based programs, rather than incarceration-based, and have proven to be highly successful in reducing recidivism, relapse, and jail costs.
“Lenawee County continues to invest in specialty court programs because they are effective,” said County Administrator Martin Marshall. “They have proven to produce high success rates, increased rehabilitation, and a reduction in jail costs for the County.”
When detained offenders meet certain criteria, they are offered placement into one of the specialty courts. By agreeing to participate in one of the specialty court programs, they are entering an intensive treatment program led by a team of professionals including a judge. Participants receive group and individual counseling services, partake in 12 step programs, and regularly visit the court’s probation officer.
As the participants make their way through the program, they move through a set of phases by meeting all the requirements established by the court. These requirements can include restitution payments, community service, and participation in treatment programs. People typically take two or four years to graduate from the program, reporting substantial sober time as well as positive growth in most areas of their lives.
“Sobriety Court’s success rate [in Lenawee County] is as of right now, we’ve had 119 people successfully complete the program and we’ve had one person relapse,” explained Heidi Cannon, Lenawee County sobriety court probation officer. “And we’ve been going strong for five years.”
According to Heidi, the structure, support, meetings with the judge, and seeing the other side of the court system are what make the specialty court programs successful.
“I often tell people, if you’re not succeeding, we’re not succeeding,” said Heidi. “I want them to truly get that and believe that.”
Specialty Courts: Improving Lives and Community
With her hand on Erin’s back, Heidi encouraged her to communicate to others how far she has come and how productive she has been now that she has completed Sobriety Court. Through her tears, Erin expressed her gratitude for the program and just how far she’s come.
“I have four kids; I got married and gained four more kids,” Erin explained. “I have had a job for three and a half years. I was hired there when I was six months sober. I have Heidi that I can still call at any time. I’m also speaking with my brother again; he hadn’t spoken to me for about a year and a half.
“I felt very alone, for a long time,” Erin continued. “When I got into sobriety court I felt like I had a support system that allowed me to work on me. If it were just up to Child Protective Services, I truly believe I would have never gotten my children back; I would have never gotten sober. And it was all because of Sobriety Court.”
Heidi clarified that without these specialty court programs, the Lenawee County community would be flooded with people without jobs, their children, or drivers’ licenses. The community would be filled with people who are constantly reoffending and having contact with law enforcement. The courts and judicial system would become overloaded.
“Some of them with felonies, some of them in prison, not getting services, and not being with their families,” explained Heidi. “I think that would be a huge disservice to our community.”