Graduation day: Albemarle will continue drug court

Drug Treatment Court coordinator Susan Morrow works often with Albemarle Sheriff’s Deputy Mike Baird. She says the program is a lot like boot camp. Photo by Martyn Kyle Drug Treatment Court coordinator Susan Morrow works often with Albemarle Sheriff’s Deputy Mike Baird. She says the program is a lot like boot camp. Photo by Martyn Kyle

I’m tired of being addicted to crack cocaine,” announced a heavy-set man in his early 60s from the front of the courtroom. “I’m free. I can pay my bills on time. I can truly be with my wife.”

The Charlottesville/Albemarle Drug Treatment Court celebrated the graduation of two participants on March 31 from the program that started in 1997.

When Robert Tracci was elected Albemarle County’s commonwealth’s attorney in November, new referrals to the drug court from his office appeared to dry up for a time, and some people feared drug court would no longer be viable without new participants from the county.

“For the last five or six months, prior to the changeover, we were getting more [referrals] from the county,” says Susan Morrow, drug court coordinator, when asked about the rate of referrals. “When Mr. Tracci first started there was definitely a lull. And I think it might have been having a whole bunch of other stuff thrown at him.” Immediately upon taking office, Tracci assumed responsibility for the Jesse Mathew Jr. murder cases.

Tracci says he was doing his due diligence on the referrals. “I can tell you, there were a couple of cases where the former commonwealth’s attorney agreed to permit people to enter drug court who were not otherwise eligible,” he says. “I had to do my due diligence. That doesn’t reflect a lack of interest in drug court but a commitment to the criteria.”

Defendants plead guilty to the charge and agree to begin a process of constant supervision and treatment for drug use in exchange for eventually having their charges dropped. Getting through drug court takes a minimum of 12 months and about 35 percent of graduates will reoffend within three years, compared with more than 80 percent of similar defendants who are sent to prison instead.

“While people are here they are in an extremely rigorous program,” says Morrow. Participants are drug-screened five days a week, in treatment four days a week and in court in front of a judge once a week. If they have a positive drug test they could be incarcerated. Doing time is a lot easier, says Morrow. “Trying to fix an addiction is really hard. The two folks you saw graduate today, for 12 months it was like boot camp.”

Throughout the morning after graduation at drug court, participants took turns standing before Judge Richard Moore, who looked over paperwork for each and asked them how their week had gone. Sometimes he praised someone for his honesty or for finding work. In other cases, he chastised laziness or poor excuses.

Moore seemed to be part judge and part therapist. “Being sober scares me,” confessed one man. “There are so many things I’m running away from.”

“I know,” replied Moore in a sympathetic tone. “Drug court is about drugs not having control of your life.”

Most people in the program have more problems with which to deal than just drug addiction. “Many of them have mental health problems that have not been diagnosed,” says Morrow. Some have problems with their living situation, and the program refers them to other agencies, including Region Ten.

Opiate and heroin addiction cases are more prevalent than what the drug court was seeing three years ago, says Morrow.

Tracci agrees. “There isn’t as much of it here as there is in other counties [in Virginia] but it has been on the rise,” he says.

“I’m a supporter of the drug court,” says Tracci. “I’m committed to drug court in appropriate circumstances. This provides an alternative to incarceration and reduces recidivism. There is constant monitoring. Overall, no system is perfect, but this one shows great promise.”

Since drug court’s first docket, about 350 people have graduated while 50 percent flunked out and were required to face the conventional justice system, often serving time behind bars.

Back at drug court graduation, the wife of the man who was tired of being addicted to crack stood up to speak. “I can go to sleep before he gets home,” she says, “and I don’t have to worry if he’s out getting high.”