By Michael Turton
In many ways it was a typical pre-graduation scene. Prospective grads, their family and friends were in a celebratory mood. There were bouquets of flowers, gift bags and lighthearted conversation.
But this was no typical graduation. It was a special session of the Putnam County Drug Treatment Court held Dec. 14 at Carmel’s historic courthouse, with Judge James F. Reitz presiding.
For the six graduates of the drug court — four men and two women in their 30s to 50s — the day marked the completion of a minimum two-year, court-supervised program aimed at helping them conquer their addiction to drugs or alcohol. It also earned them the chance to have felony charges dismissed or significantly reduced.
The path to graduation is not easy. Once accepted into the program, participants come to court weekly and are required to keep in close touch with two coordinators. A multi-disciplinary team reviews their case prior to each appearance. They also meet with a probation officer and submit to scheduled and random drug or alcohol testing.
There is also participation in court-prescribed treatment and support groups such as Alcoholics Anonymous, often several times a week. Repeated violations of the program rules, which are spelled out in agreements customized for each participant, can result in expulsion and a prison sentence.
The graduation session began on a somber note when Reitz announced that a seventh graduate who was supposed to appear had been taken to a hospital earlier that day, possibly because of a relapse.
After statements by Assistant District Attorney Breanne Smith and the defendants’ attorneys, Reitz sentenced each graduate. Charges had been held in abeyance while they completed the drug court program.
The proceedings are confidential and, as a condition of observing the session, The Current agreed to only use the defendants’ first names.
Cathryn, Michael and Austin, who faced felony charges for driving while intoxicated (DWI), had their charges dismissed. Susan, facing the same charge, saw her sentence reduced to a misdemeanor with three years of probation.
Jeff’s charge of felony possession of a controlled substance was dismissed, while Michael saw his charge reduced to a misdemeanor with a conditional discharge.
As Reitz issued each sentence, the courtroom burst into applause and cheers.
“I had a rough road. A lot of times I couldn’t get out of my own way,” Jeff told the court. “I’m just grateful for being given this chance. Now whatever happens is my choice.”
After the session concluded, Reitz said he is “all for second chances that give people the opportunity to deal with their addiction; to take care of themselves — and their family.”
The Putnam County Treatment Court Team
James Reitz, presiding judge
John Brogan, drinker-driver program
Brian Carlin, Legal Aid Society
Capt. Frank Christian, Sheriff’s Department
Joseph DeMarzo, Department of Mental Health
Charleen Effinger, Probation Department
Sue Fitzgerald, resource coordinator
Lt. Sheila Hanley, Sheriff’s Department
Sgt. Matthew Monroe, Sheriff’s Department
Louise Opfer, court coordinator
Arlene Seymour, CoveCare Center
Naura Slivinsky, Arms Acres
Breanne Smith, assistant district attorney
Robert Tendy, district attorney
Commanding Officer Steven Toth, Sheriff’s Department
Cari Young, principal court attorney
Asked why some participants fail the program, Smith said accountability can be a big factor.
“They may not be ready to take responsibility, to admit that they have a problem,” she said. “Once they realize they need help and that there are people and resources to help them, that’s when the switch flips and they begin an upward as opposed to downward spiral.”
There are no guarantees, she said. “We try to lead them in the right direction. Sometimes it works, and sometimes it doesn’t.”
Putnam County District Attorney Robert Tendy attended the graduation and spoke emotionally about losing a friend years ago to drug and alcohol addiction.
“I still miss him,” he said, adding that early in his career the notion that addiction is a disease was scoffed at. “We’ve come a very long way,” he said. “If something is hurting you, killing you and you can’t do anything about it unless you get professional help — that’s a disease.”
Today he said, “We try to help people, to stop them from hurting themselves — and from going to jail.”