By Barb Arland-Fye
Three men wearing orange jail jump suits and handcuffs wait their turn in Scott County District Court to explain to a judge why they should be allowed to participate in drug court. Three of us from the Diocese of Davenport are among the spectators watching this proceeding — Bishop Martin Amos, Kent Ferris, diocesan director of social action and Catholic Charities, and me.
Kent invited the bishop to observe a graduation ceremony during a drug court session on Friday, Dec. 6. Because of the diocese’s interest in restorative justice, Bishop Amos agreed to attend the full morning session. He explains the reason for his visit by citing Matthew’s Gospel, 25th chapter, pertaining to feeding the hungry, giving the thirsty something to drink, welcoming the stranger, clothing the naked and visiting prisoners.
Each of the drug court applicants wears a bleak look on his face. Addiction is destroying them; they say they want to turn their lives around. They have committed crimes because of their drug addiction. If accepted to drug court their prison sentences would be suspended. In return, they must commit to participating in a demanding three-year program designed to help them put their lives back together.
A host of individuals — defense attorney, prosecutor, Department of Corrections officer, treatment program leaders — are here to share their opinions about whether these addicts have the potential of succeeding in drug court. More importantly, they express genuine concern about helping fellow human beings to become productive members of society.
Chief Judge Marlita Greve asks Justin why he wants to enter drug court. When he responds that he “kind of wants to change his life,” she responds: “Kind of change your life? Or change your life? If you’re ready to change your life, that’s what this program is about.” Justin responds,“I’d like to show people I’m ready to change.”
Judge Greve grants his request, but warns there will be bumps in the road.When that happens, he needs to turn to the team for help. “You need to give up every decision-making thought you have … part of our job is to help you learn to make the right decisions.” It’s a message the judge repeats to the other two men, who also are granted the privilege of participating in drug court. Joshua, a broken man, tells her: “I’m ready to do whatever it takes to change … I’d just like to stay sober.” And he wants to be a better parent for his kids. Another judge, who had previously sentenced Joshua to prison, opposes his participation in drug court because of his numerous arrests and the child endangerment resulting from his drug activities.
One of the drug team members, Al Stouffer, says he truly believes people can change and that it’s more important to help someone like Joshua to become a tax-paying, productive citizen. “If we don’t believe people can change, we shouldn’t be in this business,” Judge Greve adds. “You are on a short leash,” she tells Joshua. “You will be required to work to get yourself better.”
Brian, a young adult addicted to heroin, presents a special concern for the drug court team because of his age and drug of choice. Heroin addiction is an especially difficult addiction to kick. However, “There are a whole lot of people who have a whole lot of faith in you,” Al tells Brian. “You have to remember that you’re not 10 feet tall and bullet-proof.” “It’s a lifelong thing you’re fighting. We can give you the tools to fight it,” Judge Greve says.
The three men stay for the remainder of drug court, listening to reports from participants in the midst of the program — men and women of various ages and walks of life. Each turns toward the new participants and offers advice: Surrender your old life style; two participants encourage them to embrace a relationship with God.
Finally, it’s graduation time. Judge Greve speaks like a proud mom introducing the three drug court graduates: Steven, Marty and Laura, who shared brief stories of their transformation from being hopeless to hope-filled, addicted to sober, nonproductive to productive.
Judge Greve reminds the new graduates: “This is not the end; this is the beginning. It’s like completing preschool and knowing you’re ready for kindergarten … I have no doubt that the three of you will continue to be successful.”
Drug court supporters like Kent, who mentors a drug court participant, will tell you the program ultimately saves taxpayers’ money. More importantly, “Mentoring is powerful because we are walking with program participants as they restore relationships with those directly affected by their actions, with society and, ultimately, with a higher being who we know as God.” Kent plans to work with the Iowa Catholic Conference in advocating for alternatives to incarceration, such as this one.
Drug court is a labor-intensive program, with about 18 individuals enrolled presently. “The reason it works is because it’s small,” drug court team member Jeff Fall says.
“We saw three people come into the program who were at the bottom and we saw three people who got themselves out of the ditch. That’s what impressed me,” Bishop Amos said.
What strikes me after witnessing a session of drug court is how it parallels the Advent message to prepare ourselves for the Way of the Lord. We do so by reaching out to the least among us: the poor, the sick, the prisoners, the strangers among us. Now I’m pondering how I can reach out.