In Jasper County, there are four different treatment courts handled by four different judges. Each judge has their own caseload that they personally oversee. The four courts are DWI Court with Judge Mouton; Drug Court with Judge Dankelson; Co-Occurring Court with Judge Crane; and Veteran’s Court with Judge Nicholas.
Each court has an application and process in which Defendant’s with pending criminal charges must apply and meet certain criteria to be accepted. Matt Ouren, the Treatment Court Administrator meets with each applicant. Once the person is accepted into the Treatment Court, they become a "participant" not a "Defendant". Their charges are still pending, but they have the opportunity to dissolve those charges if they complete the 18 month program to which they are accepted. To me, the choice would be obvious--take a felony or 18 months of treatment court? Uh yea, I’ll take the treatment court. However, to some Defendant’s who are not ready to get clean and sober, they rather take the felony and hope for probation. It’s quite sad.
Matt Ouren also runs a group meeting on Tuesday nights for participants. It is a meeting similar to a support group like AA, only it consists of only people who are participants in Treatment Court. It is a weekly safe place where everyone is abiding by the same rules and they get to interact with Matt and discuss any feelings, struggles, issues and get moral support from others. I was invited to visit the Tuesday night group. There were people from each treatment court present that night. Some who were just beginning and some who were getting ready to graduate, but all were there for support or to give support.
Several of them told me about their own feelings about Treatment Court and how it has literally saved their lives. What really struck me was the adoration they felt for the judges assigned to their cases. How often do you hear of a Defendant talking about a Judge in ways like "I feel like she cares about me" or "He really made me feel good when he said he was proud of me."? They also praised their probation officers. It was something you don’t commonly hear. There was no stress in the group meeting, no tears, no drama, no one showed up drunk or high. It was peaceful and comfortable. You could tell they felt safe. I enjoyed it. If someone would have walked in the room and saw the variety of people in that room, they would have had no idea that they were looking at a group of people facing criminal charges and fighting addiction. They would have seen a room full of just everyday people.
The next morning Matt got approval from Judge Dankelson for me to attend the staffing session prior to Drug Court. I had to sign a confidentiality waiver to attend the staffing, which I had no issue in doing. I had been in that courtroom in the past for domestic cases and had sat at the round table in the Division II Courtroom assisting my boss in a trial, but had never seen a Judge sitting at the table. That was kind of wild to see at first. He didn’t have on his robe, but of course, I did know he was the Judge. Also present was Matt, the Treatment Court Administrator; Will Lynch from the Prosecutor’s Office; a Deputy from Jasper County; a Counselor; Matt’s Intern; and a Probation and Parole Officer.
They started with a stack of documents and literally went through case by case and discussed each and every participant in Judge Dankelson’s Drug Court program. From the smallest of details to the largest of details, they knew EVERYTHING going on in these people’s lives. They knew whether they were working, how many meetings they were attending, how many call-in’s they have made to the probation officer, whether they showed up for every drug screen, whether they were still working, if they had a fight with their girlfriend, if they are struggling with a family member, etc. Case by case they discussed these participants and each person talked about their interactions. The deputy assigned to the Court sometimes will go check on housing, will go verify a story someone has told them, he serves lots of purposes. They leave no stone un-turned in these people’s lives. The counselor talks about issues that are bothering them, good and bad things happening in their lives, and recommends different things if she feels something isn’t working. The probation officer reports if she is not getting call-in’s on time, if someone doesn’t show for an appointment or if someone fails a drug screen. Also, they review applications from participants who are requesting to move up to the next phase. They talk about whether they are ready.
Judge Dankelson truly knows these people. He remembers things they told him 2 weeks ago that they promised him, or something they didn’t do or an achievement they have made. He has input on every single case just like the rest of the panel. One of his comments that I noted and loved was "Well if he is not working, he needs to occupy his time, so let’s have him do community service 20 hours a week and get him to group meetings." I wanted to stand up and applaud because I am such a firm believer that "Idle hands are the Devil’s workshop". When Judge found out one of the participants wasn’t making his appointments to his counselor, he said he was going to make him write a letter of apology to her. Admitting their faults and taking responsibility for their mistakes is a huge deal in Treatment Court I observed. I couldn’t agree with that more in that every addict has such the ability to blame everyone else for their shortcomings and problems rather than themselves. Well, Treatment Court doesn’t allow that excuse. They make you accept what you did wrong, admit what you did wrong, apologize for what you did wrong--and you better not do it again or "chit is gonna hit the fan." (Quote by myself, not them).
The team makes the decision together on whether people shall be promoted to the next phase and sometimes, they have to make the decision to terminate them from the program all together, which means they will be served with a notice when Court resumes following the staffing session.
If a participant has failed a drug screen or didn't show up for a drug screen (which to the Court is the same as a positive); or has broken other rules, they will be put in the "penalty box" when Court begins. The penalty box is the "time-out" of Treatment Court. Everyone else comes in and sits in the audience and you have to sit in the jury seats where everyone can see that you’ve been a bad boy or girl. Not fun. Since I was sitting in the jury box while they were having their staffing meeting, I was grateful Judge let me move to his seat at the table before Court began. God knows I probably have earned a penalty box a time or two in my life but glad he didn’t make me sit there that day.
At 11:00 AM, Court begins. No attorneys are present because once the Defendant becomes a participant, they are managed solely by the Treatment Court for 18 months. It is basically a group meeting and Court all rolled into one. Judge does put on his robe and the normal "All rise" by the bailiff is announced and everything seems like a normal court proceeding is about to begin. But then...it's all different.
Judge Dankelson started the morning court session with this quote he had read earlier and found it fitting for his participants:
"So often the difference between success and failure is belief. And so often that belief is instilled in us by someone who encouraged us. Be Intentional. Encourage those around you today. Let them know you believe in them. They may need to hear it more than you know."
"Wow, how neat is that," I thought to myself. One by one, he called up each participant by name and they would approach the bench and stand before him. He asked them questions like "Tell me what is going on in your life" and they would tell him or "Give me something positive that has happened to you since I saw you" or he would read their requests for advancement in the program and he would tell them when they have earned that promotion. When they did earn the promotion, he would present them with a coin and stand up and shake their hand and congratulate them on their achievement. After he would finish with a participant, the audience and the team would applaud. It was great. I was really getting into the positivity of it because you could see the pride they felt when he would compliment them. Even if they weren’t perfect that month, for example didn’t handle a situation as the team wishes they would have--he looked for positives to point out to them. "We would have preferred you handle that this way next time---but we are glad you didn’t do this like you would have in the past." He made sure they knew that even though they got corrected, that he still was proud that they were making progress. If someone had a tragedy in their family, he made sure he acknowledged it and gave them his condolences. He encouraged some who were parents that were having struggles with their own kids. He was sitting on the bench, wearing the judicial robe, but he was their mentor. The respect he was giving them gave them great pride in themselves.
THEN there were the ones in the penalty box. They were also called up one by one. Some were served with termination papers from the program and told of their right to counsel at that hearing. He was still very respectful to them, but the authoritative tone did change. They were people that were just not ready to be clean or were just not willing to abide by the rules. He made no bones about it, was very straight forward and they didn’t get any applause, nor did they deserve any. They did get a word of advice from him to use the days before the next court appearance to prove that they shouldn’t be terminated from the program. Do something themselves to prove it and stand on their feet and come back before him if they were willing to try again…but it would be solely up to them to do that before the next court date. That’s another thing…if you move back a phase, you have to start all over from scratch. No free passes in Treatment Court. No skipping bases. It’s not Candy land. It’s "earn every step of every phase yourself for 18 months and sometimes longer". It’s "go big or go to prison."
There is a separate docket for those who are looking at dismissal from treatment court. They are placed back on a criminal docket. They don’t get to come back to the positive Treatment Court atmosphere. They are back to being a Defendant. No positive quotes and coins on their next visit before the judge. No counselors, no positive Matt sitting there cheering them on as well. The prosecutor will be there, however. I hope those that got served with termination papers walked out of there and decided to change their path and come back and beg to be back in…but chances are, they probably left and will be getting high until they go back to jail. Very sad, but a harsh reality of the grip addiction has on people.
As Matt Ouren says, "It is their choice to be in our program from the beginning. They can leave at any time; however, there is consequence. We truly believe that if they cannot make it with the structure of our treatment court, including the partnership we have with all of the local providers and recovery supports, they obviously need a more structured environment to address their substance abuse related issues." I completely agree. They give participants every avenue to succeed.
After the courtroom was cleared, it was just Judge Dankelson, his bailiff and me. He asked me if I had any questions and what I thought of it all. I asked if being a judge made him view addiction any differently than he did as a prosecutor. He said he didn’t feel it did, because he had been to training several years regarding the topic and has always believed in the importance of treatment court; however, he did feel that wearing the black robe does make a difference in how the participants react to him. He can definitely see the effect his positive affirmations have on the participants. His bailiff said that when he himself first heard of treatment court, he thought it would be nonsense. He was very cynical. He said watching them change lives, has made a believer out of him. He said "I have seen it with my own eyes. It works."
I will say that my family has experienced numerous meetings, treatment facilities, support groups, counseling sessions, therapy groups, team meetings, etc. in the last seven years. I thought I had seen it all. It turns out, that I have not. I have always told parents that the best thing they can do for their kids is to leave them sitting in jail to suffer consequences or they will be dealing with the same problems and more for years to come. I still believe that. I’m so glad to know that the help that I have driven to Dallas, Columbia, Oklahoma City, Atchison, Tulsa, etc. can be found now right in Jasper County with a team of people who truly care. Treatment Court in Jasper County is growing and improving and setting the bar for other courts in the country. It is impressive. For all the parents that I have told to let their kids sit in jail, I feel even better about that advice knowing that they have the opportunity to get help through our court system and leave no blemish on their record if they finish the program. It’s a win-win situation.
I am very much looking forward to visiting the other 3 Court’s to see the other Judge’s in action. (There is my hints to Judge Crane, Judge Nicholas and Judge Mouton that I really want to come to yours next ☺). I hear they all have their own styles and I’m anxious to learn more. I cannot thank Judge Dankelson enough for allowing me to peek inside his Drug Court and be able to share my experience with all of you.
I need the reminder every day that he gave me to "let someone know you believe in them." It’s hard to do that sometimes when you have a loved one battling addiction. It’s hard to have hope. I am thankful that there are other people out there and people of authority such as Judge; Matt Ouren and the Drug Court team that are able to give that hope to someone who needs it. Often times hearing "I believe in you" from a stranger has far more impact on a person.
My next blog I’ll be sharing more about Matt Ouren and his experiences being Treatment Court Administrator and the advice he has for those with loved ones struggling with addiction.