It was a fall day in 2020 when Tim [name changed for privacy] was charged with multiple counts of drug possession and distribution. It was not his first encounter with the criminal justice system. The 38-year old Jefferson County resident was 15 when he first started using drugs to treat chronic pain and 18 when he started getting arrested in West Virginia and Maryland.
Facing years in prison, Tim was ready to try a different path. “I was motivated,” he said, when he learned that he could avoid prison by completing a court-supervised treatment program. He applied even though he was unsure whether he met all of the criteria. Fortunately, he was accepted and became one of 11 participants who entered Jefferson County’s Treatment Court program in 2021.
High Cost of Prison for Drug Crimes
West Virginia reports that drug offenders are approximately 25 percent of all new prison admissions in the state (up from 10 percent in 2000). Between 2005 and 2015, the state’s annual cost to house drug offenders increased from $7.1 to $22.4 million. Yet studies consistently show that incarceration alone is ineffective to reduce substance abuse and distribution. Imprisonment brings risks of continued access to illegal drugs and other negative influences, compounding the challenges faced by individuals — and their families and loved ones — who are already struggling with substance abuse.
A Different Path to Recovery
In West Virginia, there is an alternative. Treatment Courts are authorized by state law and offered by circuit courts to adults as an alternative to incarceration in situations involving substance abuse (there is a similar program for juveniles). Treatment Court participants agree to an intensive, court-supervised program for at least one year while remaining drug free. Violation of the program’s conditions can result in return to the traditional judicial process (including imprisonment).
The program has four phases and the initial phase is particularly intense: daily group or individual therapy and coaching sessions, drug testing, and weekly meetings with the supervising judge. As the individual moves through the program, the frequency of testing decreases and more time is spent on career counseling, taking classes, and developing a plan for normal life.
The Treatment Court program was established in the Eastern Panhandle in 2015, covering Jefferson, Berkeley and Morgan counties. In Jefferson County, Judge David Hammer and other court officials volunteer their time to oversee the program and meet weekly with the participants. Probation Officer Crystal Gumbel-Shade manages the caseload, touching base with each participant regularly. Treatment and counseling professionals are part of the effort as well. In 2021, 7 participants graduated from the Eastern Panhandle program and 26 individuals were accepted into the program.
Volunteers Make It Happen
While the Eastern Panhandle Treatment Court program receives funding from the state court system and other government sources, the program relies heavily on volunteers. This October, a community-based group of volunteers organized a comedy show and silent auction specifically to support the program in Jefferson County. According to Melissa Knott, volunteer treasurer of the community group (and regional manager of City National Bank), a local advisory board will guide how the $17,000 raised will be used to pay for services that government funding is not able to support.
A Better Future
Tim is just a few months away from graduating from the program. During the program he took various classes at Blue Ridge Technical College and discovered a love of welding. Instead of continuing to receive federal benefits, he is now working for a regional construction company in a union job. He credits the Treatment Court program, and the personal involvement of Judge Hammer, with helping him “turn his life around.”
For information on how to support the Treatment Court program, contact volunteer Melissa Knott (email@example.com).
Resources for Recovery
Help4WV — Offers a 24/7 chat, call and text line to provide immediate help for any West Virginia resident struggling with addiction or mental health issues. Visit the website (Help4WV.com) or call/text 844-435-7498. The website also provides links to a variety of resources for treatment, therapy and support.
StartYourRecovery — Call 800-662-4357 for confidential recommendations to free help from public health agencies, to find substance use treatment, and information. Website: StartYourRecovery.org.
WVU Medicine — Resources for treatment and recovery. Website: Health.WVU.edu/addiction/resources.
BackToLifeWV — Resources from West Virginia Department of Health & Human Resources. Website: BackToLifeWV.org.By Harriet Pearson