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Leah Thomas May 17, 2013

My first time in drug treatment court was unlike any other court appearance. The first participant, a heavy-set woman who looked neither old nor young, came and sat next to her attorney. The judge had a familiar banter with her, and her replies came easily until he asked about her mother. Her mother was also a drug treatment court participant who absconded – took off. The woman at the table reported she has not had any luck corralling her mother back into the program. The judge told her to keep trying and to relay his hello. In an uplifting twist, though, it was her birthday. Having spied a young girl in the gallery as he advised the entire courtroom we were about to sing ‘Happy Birthday,’ the judge had the little girl come up to the front of the courtroom to lead the song. A little shy, but adorable, she sang muffled into her father’s shirt. As the rest of us joined her and the song ended, the whole courtroom erupted into applause. I could not resist smiling – this really is feel good court.

A morning observing the Milwaukee County Drug Treatment Court is that way – simultaneously uplifting and depressing. Participants doing well in their sobriety receive a hearty round of applause from the entire courtroom, while participants who have relapsed are questioned intensely by the judge and sometimes taken into custody. On just such a day, I had one client who was awarded Person of the Week for maintaining sobriety and appointments, and another who was taken into custody for another relapse. Both are heroin addicts, as are many of the other 80 or so participants. Heroin use has increased in Milwaukee and the surrounding areas, likely because it is less expensive than cocaine, according to a recent Journal Sentinel article. Whatever their drug of choice, all of the participants have been using for so long that their period of sobriety pales in comparison. Regardless, it’s the tools for maintaining sobriety that count, so they can continue to build on sobriety long after the program is over.

One of the program’s goals is to reduce recidivism among drug abusers by monitoring intensive community-based programming. This goal requires the orchestration of many community agencies, all of which are involved directly with the court. Because the program is treatment-based, these reports from treatment providers include a lot of personal information. To prevent airing personal details in open court, meetings are held in private with the judge, prosecutor, defense attorney, and caseworker. The caseworker provides everyone with a report detailing how the participant is doing in treatment since the last court date, if the treatment plan is still appropriate, and if there are any problems, what should be done. Once in open court, the judge addresses the participant directly about areas that need improvement or change, in a style reminiscent of a knowing and stern parent.

As I see it, the value of the Drug Treatment Court program lies in the intensive support that is a combination of friend and foe – it does not give up on participants easily, and it does not allow the participants to give up easily, either. Therein lies the most important piece of the puzzle because sobriety is not accomplished with the flick of a switch. A client of mine recently had his birthday on the very day he had drug treatment court. Rather than the joyful song I remembered from my first day, he was taken into custody for yet another positive drug test; he is still in the program. The road through addiction toward sobriety is a perilous one, but I see the Milwaukee County Drug Treatment Court providing structure, incentive, support, and direction for defendants with the desire to travel it.;