Summit County’s Drug Court uses therapy and supervision to reduce recidivism. For one recent graduate, it was a life-changing experience.
500. 630. 190. 458.
When these numbers rang out in a 3rd District courtroom Monday, they weren’t the length of prison sentences, and were accompanied, perhaps unusually for the setting, by rounds of applause.
They represent the amount of time, in days, participants in Summit County’s Drug Court had remained sober, something Judge Patrick Corum asked each one he called up to address the court.
Corum called them each by their first name and asked the question after inquiring about particular details of their life — how the new job was going, whether they got their vacation time settled, if there was anything they’d like to get off their chest.
While the approach was typical of a Drug Court session, the emotion in the room ran high, Corum said, because Monday marked the graduation of one of the program’s participants.
Instead of an 84-month prison sentence, James Paul was looking at a fresh start.
Drug Court is an alternative justice program that gives non-violent offenders an option other than prison: Complete an 18-month, therapy-intensive outpatient drug-treatment program, achieve sobriety and maintain employment and housing. When those and other conditions are met, Summit County will dismiss or reduce the criminal charges.
Corum said the goal of the program is to reduce recidivism and help participants stay sober and achieve positive results. Participants must volunteer for the program, which starts with group and individual therapy sessions, intensive supervision and regular drug screenings. Corum said participants have frequent and meaningful contact with treatment providers, probation providers, the court and attorneys. At the beginning, when the adjustment is at its most intense, the contact is almost constant.
And while that all sounds well and good, the judge said the data backs up the theory.
“The bottom line is — it works,” Corum said.
On Monday, Paul became the latest person to complete the journey when Summit County Attorney Margaret Olson requested the court reduce the charges against him and terminate his probation.
Paul said it took him more than two years to reach that point, transforming him physically and mentally to such an extent that he considers himself a different person than he was when he was incarcerated around his 28th birthday. He is now 31.
“This opportunity saved my life,” Paul told the court. “I promise you it will not be squandered.”
Summit County’s Drug Court has roots that date back to 2006 but was officially taken over by the Sheriff’s Office in 2011. Since 2016, it’s doubled in size, now counting about 20 active participants.
Paul is the 27th graduate since 2011 and the 11th this year alone.
The program is managed by a collaborative team that includes Judge Corum, prosecutors, defense attorneys, peer support, a behavioral-health treatment team and members of the Sheriff’s Office and Park City Police Department.
Summit County Sheriff’s detectives Felicia Sotelo and Andy Crnich, who also oversee a similar probation program, said they’re in constant contact with participants and get to know their families and home lives.
That’s especially true at the beginning, when they work with community resources like the Summit County Recovery Foundation and the Christian Center of Park City to take care of participants’ basic needs, like food, clothing, housing and employment.
The deputies don’t have regular days off and described the job as a 24-7 commitment with a lot of time spent texting participants and checking in.
But they said the job is rewarding, a different kind of law enforcement that allows them to see people through a challenging path.
Crnich said that getting to know participants makes it particularly rewarding when they witness people rebuild bridges they’d burned to their families, to society and to themselves.
The earliest part of the program is the most intense adjustment period for participants. They have to figure out logistics like finding employment that allows for the program’s time commitments and adjust to a completely new life filled with new people and absent the habits and routines they relied on for years.
At a time of heightened stress, participants can no longer turn to substances to blunt the pain.
“Overall, it’s a huge thing to change your life and walk away from what you’ve done for so many years,” Sotelo said.
Therapy is also most intense at the beginning, and it was important to the county that the care providers who service Drug Court remain the same even as the county transitions to a new behavioral-health program.
Tracy Altman, who is overseeing that transition as a senior Medicaid program manager with University of Utah Health Plans, was at Monday’s Drug Court. She said she was able to successfully bring aboard all the care providers who’ve previously provided services to participants through Valley Behavioral Health.
Corum said the program uses incentives and sanctions to guide participants’ behavior. He said supporting the class members doesn’t mean turning the other cheek all the time, and that sometimes punishments and sanctions are necessary. By and large, though, the people who are there want to be there, and he sees positive results.
One participant described the program as a full-time job, with Monday evenings in Drug Court, group therapy on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays, life skill training on Friday mornings and 90 Alcoholics Anonymous meetings in 90 days. That’s on top of a daily call to see whether he’d be drug tested, which participants pay for out of their own pocket. Under the county’s previous behavioral health care provider, that cost about $20 each time.
Monday marked a perfect week, Corum said, and praised participants for 100 percent attendance at classes and therapy sessions and not one missed or failed drug test.
“Being a judge in Drug Court has reaffirmed all these things I know to be true,” Corum said. “Some people, if you give them an opportunity, the right opportunity at the right time in their lives … they can be successful.”
James Paul stood behind a lectern in the courtroom Monday, addressing Corum with about 25 people sitting behind him in the gallery. Some were fellow Drug Court participants, some supporters and some administrators of the program or other officials.
He read a letter he’d written about what he learned in Drug Court, chronicling some of his lowest points and the mental changes he’d undergone in the previous two years.
The stories he told about his addiction and where it left him contrasted starkly with his presence in court, speaking clearly and articulately, clean cut in a suit.
He told the court about lying in a parking lot in the second day of heroin withdrawal, watching people walk by and blaming them for not helping him.
He realized later, he said, the first step would be his and his alone to take.
“I wish heroin and every other substance was a person so they could see they didn’t have me,” Paul said.
He thanked those in the program who helped him, including therapists for listening, especially in the beginning when he said he basically shouted his feelings at them.
And he thanked Roy Parker, a member of the program’s peer support network who gave him honest advice about what it would take to beat his addiction.
To enter the program, Paul had written an 18-page letter to Summit County Attorney Margaret Olson asking her to give him a chance.
Olson kept the letter for more than two years and returned it Monday, congratulating Paul and telling him his is a story worth being a part of.
In the letter, Paul wrote things he wanted to achieve, Olson said.
“I wanted to point out you already have some of them,” she said. “Sobriety, love, respect, happiness. Congratulations to you and thank you for sharing this little piece of yourself.”
Later, after Paul had graduated, had his charges reduced and had been given a plaque and a standing ovation, there was cake in the lobby. Other participants milled around and chatted with one another and other guests.
Paul said it was a life-altering moment, one that made him proud but also a little nervous now that he would no longer have the regimented support of Drug Court.
Corum spoke to that concern in the courtroom, telling him everybody there would be there for him the day after graduation, just like they were the day before it. If he needed something, all he had to do was ask.
“Everybody in this courtroom is absolutely in your corner for all time,” the judge said.
Paul said he’s doing really well and loves his job managing a local restaurant. He said he was recently approved for a home loan and is saving money for a down payment. He’s ready to start something big in this next chapter of his life.
He’s contemplating how best to help others, maybe through a nonprofit that helps people battle addiction with exercise.
The last time he’d accomplished something as big as what he did Monday, he really couldn’t say.
“I took for so long, about time I gave back,” Paul said. “About time people benefited from something I did with my own hands.”
If you’re an employer interested in employing Drug Court participants, please call 435-615-3600.
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