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Drug recovery court opens in Lenoir county, offers rehabilitation over prison sentences

 Judge Beth Heath sits in plain clothes during a closed-door session to discuss the needs of each of the participants in the new Adult Recovery Court.
Ryan Shaffer
PRE News & Ideas
Judge Beth Heath sits at the defendant's table with probation officers, social workers, drug counselors, and other staff to share updates on each of the Adult Recovery Court's participants at the Lenoir county courthouse.

A court designed specifically for people with substance use disorder in Lenoir County is marking its sixth month this June. Participants who commit a crime as a result of their addiction may choose to enroll in Adult Recovery Court, where they’ll complete a five-phase rehabilitation program in exchange for having the crime removed from their record. Advocates say it’s a more cost-effective way to reduce crime and treat drug addiction.

The Adult Recovery Court began in January, and it's already at capacity. Colleen Kosinski is an administrator for the Adult Recovery Court. The court operates in the 8th judicial district, which covers Wayne, Lenoir and Greene counties.

“We began taking referrals in December and then had our first court case in January,” she said.

The court is similar to the district’s Family Accountability Court, which seeks to help parents at risk of losing custody of their children due to a substance use disorder.

“We modeled our court on what we had learned from our Family Accountability Court, which has been in operation for 18 years,” Kosinski said.

The Adult Recovery Court is an alternative for people with substance use disorder who have committed lower-level felonies that would usually call for two or three years in prison. In a traditional criminal court, these participants would likely be receiving a plea deal or going to trial.

It's not like a courtroom you'd see on TV, or even like a traditional Criminal Court. There is no arguing between lawyers. No one takes the witness stand. No final verdict from. The judge instead, it's a conversation between the judge and the programs participants. Judge Beth Heath has served as a district 8 judge for more than two decades. She presides over the court.

“This kind of court is what I started out calling a long time ago ‘problem solving court,’” she said. “Our role is to try to figure out what's going on in people's lives that have brought them to this point and see what we can do to try to help them fix those problems.”

Once every two weeks, the recovery court meets for status updates. It starts at 2:00 p.m. in a closed session – just the judge, drug counselors, probation officers and people from community organizations. Twelve people in casual clothes surround the plaintiff’s and defendant’s tables to discuss the needs and progress of each participant. Do they need help with finding housing? Transportation to and from their cosmetology school? Did they make their dental appointment?

“My role very much is to support, and make sure they get what they need,” Heath said.

An hour later, they break their huddle and Judge Beth Heath returns to her judge's chambers. The court doors open, and Heath returns in her judges robes and takes the bench. It's more formal, more official. Court is in session. Heath says the court acts as a source of accountability for the participants.

One by one, each participant stands before the judge and updates her on their progress. If the program participant has a successful two weeks, they receive an incentive. They get to spin a prize wheel. If not, they receive a sanction, something they must do to ensure they're following the program's rules. Four out of five on the day I visited had positive updates. The fifth missed a drug test.

“I'm really trying to get the person to accept responsibility for what? And that didn't really happen today,” she told PRE after the hearing. “Accountability is extremely important and being responsible for your behavior is extremely important in recovery. If we can't get past that, then we've got a lot of work to do.”

The participant received a sanction. She had to write a letter about the importance of honesty and deliver it to the court at its next meeting.

Judge Heath also holds recovery court in Green and Wayne counties. A third of North Carolina's 100 counties have an adult recovery court. Nine counties have a Family Accountability Court. Heath believes recovery courts are not widespread across the state due to a lack of funding from the state, and in part due to a perception that recovery courts are permissive.

“There's been a lot of stigma with recovery courts among judges, prosecutors, and everybody, because we're going to court and we're going to clap for people,” she said, adding the idea of a rehabilitative justice system has become more accepted. “There's been a big shift and I think that it's so exciting to be a part of this right now because we have the opportunity to really make this spread and available for everybody.”

Data from the National Drug Court Resource Center shows. Adult recovery courts save almost $7,000 per participant and are more likely to reduce recidivism than a typical criminal court. In the ‘90s, North Carolina funded drug recovery courts in every judicial district. District 8 opened one in the early 2000s, but it closed in 2004 after funding for these courts was pulled.

“If you go back to the 1980s and 90s, when we started the war on drugs, the answer was build a whole bunch of jails,” Heath said. “We criminalized substance use disorder . . . and that didn't work, so recovery courts are an effort to do something different that has a different outcome. We know that recovery courts are the most successful justice involved in intervention for helping to stop that cycle.”

Other Eastern North Carolina counties with an Adult Recovery Court include Washington, Beaufort, Pitt, Dare, Tyrell and Hyde counties.

Ryan is an Arkansas native and podcast junkie. He was first introduced to public radio during an internship with his hometown NPR station, KUAF. Ryan is a graduate of Tufts University in Somerville, Mass., where he studied political science and led the Tufts Daily, the nation’s smallest independent daily college newspaper. In his spare time, Ryan likes to embroider, attend musicals, and spend time with his fiancée.