Grafton County drug court saves money, lives


May 20, 2011
By KAYTI BURT

kburt@salmonpress.com

GRAFTON COUNTY— Five more graduated from the Grafton County Drug Court program last Monday. Those gathered from participants to coordinators to family members hailed the program's power to transform by giving non-violent offenders a second chance and the support to seize it.

"Thank you for judging me on my heart, and not my mistakes," said Henry Therrien, of Littleton, to those gathered after he received his certificate. His success has no secret, he said; it was because of hard work.

The drug court program offers an alternative to prison time for non-violent, substance-related crimes, but it is not easy. The program lasts anywhere from 18 to 24 months, depending on how many "sanctions" you receive.

The five who graduated from the program at last Monday's graduation ceremony were a few of the 19 who have successfully graduated. A young woman present for the event will soon be beginning the program as the 50th participant.

Therrien made it through the 18-month drug court program without any sanctions, but he said it wasn't easy.

"Everything's a challenge," he said. "I was a complete mess when I came in."

Therrien credits much of his successful completion of the program to his support system, including his two children who he has earned back time with during the course of the program, and his employers, Jim and Jean McKenna, of The Coffee Pot. Therrien has worked on and off at The Coffee Pot for the past ten years, and Jim was present at the ceremony, continuing to support Therrien.

"At first, it really sucked," said Gil Dinger, of Ashland, one of the five graduates. "A lot of people, when they come to drug court, they resent it. They're in your life 24-7. Once they come to realize they're doing it for a reason, it changes."

Grafton County's program is divided into four phases. Phase one lasts for three months, and asks participants to submit a 24-7 schedule, attend group counseling nine hours a week and individual counseling one hour a week, and report to court every Monday. Phase two lasts for six months, asks for the 24-7 schedule, six hours of group counseling and one hour of individual counseling per week, and court every other week. Phase three lasts for six months, includes three weekly hours of group counseling and one individual hour, and court once a month. Phase four lasts for three months, and consists of an hour of individual counseling, and court once a month. Participants are also asked to hold a 40-hour per week job, and submit to periodic drug tests.

Drug courts started in 1929, explained Coordinator Bob Gasser during the ceremony, when a Florida judge wanted to do something to break the cycle of drug-related crimes. Eighty-five percent of crime is driven by drugs, said Gasser. The Grafton County drug court program is one of three currently in the state. The other two are in Strafford and Rockingham counties. There are also three juvenile drug courts, and seven mental health courts either already in existence or about to be launched.

Case Manager Jennifer Stone, who works with all of the program's participants, noted the program not only benefits the participants, but saves the taxpayers money.

"It has become a very successful program, and has saved our state and our country a lot of money," said Stone last Thursday at a presentation at the Littleton Senior Center. The cost of housing a prisoner in the Grafton County jail is about $26,000 per year, while drug court costs about $10,000 per participant.

For the participants of the drug court program, success is not measured in dollars, but in accomplishments. Many of the people in the program have reestablished relationships with their children during the course of the program, enrolled in college classes, or advanced in their careers.

"Everything you dreamt of being as an addict, it will eventually come true," said Dinger, naming earning the trust of other people as top of that list. Participants in the drug court program are given support from many sources, from counselors to case managers to each other.

Jay Allen facilitates the Narcotics Anonymous group Dinger has been a part of as an element of his counseling for the program. Dinger lists Allen, a former addict himself who served more than a decade in jail for murder before staying sober for 28 years, as an inspiration for his recovery.

"If it wasn't for looking up to him and wanting what he had," said Dinger, "I wouldn't have made it."

Allen cannot say enough about the drug court program.

"Personally, I wish it were broader-based," said Allen. "I think it's the best-spent tax dollar out there."

Allen said the taxpayer can either pay to facilitate rehabilitation or pay in other ways down the road.

"Without that money for treatment, they're just going to be buying bullets for guns to go out and arrest the perpetrators who didn't get to drug court," he said. Every person has a ripple effect in their community, said Allen, and those ripples can either be positive or negative.

Graduate Christopher Cole, of Enfield, has made strides in his personal and professional lives during his tenure in the drug court program.

"It's been a life-changing experience," said Cole. Cole ended up in the program after he earned a couple of drug-related felony charges.

The program hasn't been easy for Cole, who had to deal with the loss of his younger brother during the course of his time in drug court, but he has come out stronger on the other side.

"It gives the opportunity to turn your life around," he said. Cole is now working at HypoTherm in Hanover. "A lot of good things have happened since I've gotten sober. The prize at the end is all worthwhile."

Participants who complete the program are granted a clean record. Those who do not make it through earn the prison sentence they avoided by agreeing to enter the drug court program.

"All of us who are in the program are looking out for each other," said Cole. "We all want everyone to make it through it."

Graduate Micah Bouton, of West Lebanon, said the program has given him the chance to prove himself to others, as well as himself and taught him "to live without fear of himself." Bouton has enrolled in college courses, and been made a supervisor at work.

"It is the beginning of peace," said Bouton.

Former drug court graduate Monica Chaloux spoke to the graduates about the challenges she has faced since leaving the program, but also about the coping skills she has developed to see her through those challenges.

"I think that all parts of my ambitions, my hopes, my needs all that you want out of life I have a new perspective because of this program," said Chaloux. "This program has taught me how to take care of me."

"I think the whole program is one big family a family that supports each other and cares about each other," she said.

One of those support systems is Judge Tim Vaughan, who meets with the program's participants once a week during the first phase of the program, and eventually once a month come the final phase. Vaughan said the program gives him a "totally different view of [his] job." Instead of dispensing justice without talkback, Vaughan is able to discuss progress with the people, he said.

"I'm convinced it works," he said. "I'm convinced it needs to be part of our justice system as an alternative-sentencing program."

Vaughan said although there have been people who have failed the program, he believes they have also succeeded, in that they have been given the skills that may help them to make better choices in the future. This is all made possible through a large group of individuals and organizations.

"This is a team sport," said Vaughan. "It's a whole group of people who participate leading up to today's events."

Gasser thanked the county commissioners for their support, as well as the Friends of Grafton County Drug Court, the Thresholds counseling program, and the countless individuals involved professionally and personally in the participants' progress.

Among the public officials who attended the event included Representatives Rusty Bulis and Ed Gionet, County Commissioners Michael Cryans and Ray Burton, and representatives from Senator Jeanne Shaheen's office Chuck Henderson and Leigh Marthe.

Professor Michele Martinez Campbell, who specializes in criminal law at Vermont Law School was the keynote speaker. Among her extensive experience, Campbell served as the Deputy Chief of the Narcotics Unit in New York City's justice system. She spoke of the many people she saw never escape their addictions, and praised the program and the graduates for their hard work.

"For you, things are different because of this program, and because of your inner strength to do what you had to do," said Campbell.

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