May 10, 2017

An innovative model for justice reform can help communities ravaged by addiction

Drug courts across the U.S. offer treatment and a second chance

Eight years ago, Chelsea Carter was facing up to 20 years. After successfully completing a treatment court program, she now has a master’s degree and is a therapist committed to helping others who suffer from addiction.

Chelsea Carter is a therapist at a treatment center in Logan County, West Virginia–one of the counties at the epicenter of the national opioid epidemic. Chelsea is on the front lines working every day to help give people the chance to turn their lives around and find recovery from their devastating addiction.

She’s also living example of what criminal justice reform looks like.

Eight years ago, Chelsea sat in a jail cell facing felony burglary and conspiracy charges. After years struggling with her own addiction to OxyContin, she took to stealing to support her habit. She had been arrested numerous times, and faced up to 20 years in prison. Instead, she received the opportunity to participate in a drug treatment court.

There is a quiet revolution taking place in our justice system. Instead of viewing addiction as a moral failing, treatment courts have emerged as a public health approach that views it as a disease. Instead of punishment, they offer treatment. Instead of indifference, they show compassion. The rise of treatment courts has brought out of the shadows justice and treatment professionals who were frustrated by seeing sick people punished instead of cared for. Treatment courts have given rise to a generation of judges willing to look past the chaos in people’s lives and see humanity and hope, prosecutors who won’t accept simply discarding addicted people when we know that treatment works, and treatment providers willing to work with the justice system to improve access to care.

In treatment court Chelsea met regularly with a case manager and participated in rigorous treatment and counseling. With the help of the treatment court team, she began to put the pieces of her life back together. They encouraged her to enroll in school, so she enrolled in West Virginia State University. After graduating with a psychology degree, she pursued a master’s in social work which she received from Concord University.

Her counselors encouraged her to be of service, so she began working in drug treatment programs and telling her story to students across the state. In late 2016, she received a pardon from West Virginia Gov. Earl Tomblin.

Today, Chelsea has no criminal record holding her back. She’s proof that justice is sometimes best served by connecting people to the treatment and services they need to get their lives back on track.

There are now more than 3,000 treatment courts in the United States. They refer over 150,000 people to addiction and mental health treatment, more than any other system. Nationally, 75 percent of the people who complete a treatment court remain arrest free, compared to the roughly 75 percent who re-offend when their cases are handled in the traditional way. According to a 2011 study,This success saves taxpayers nearly $6,208 for every participant in the program.

Without treatment, those in need return to our communities and continue the cycle of addiction, mental illness, and arrest.

The National Association of Drug Court Professionals has made it a mission to put life-saving treatment within reach of every person involved in the justice system who needs it.

We’ve made great progress, but there is much work to be done. Over half of the U.S. prison population, 1.5 million people, have a substance use disorder, and another 458,000 have significant history with substance abuse. Moreover, there are roughly 400,000 people with a mental health disorder currently locked behind bars. Without treatment, those in need return to our communities and continue the cycle of addiction, mental illness, and arrest.

Treatment courts like the one that saved Chelsea Carter’s life offer a proven solution. And we need more of them. May is National Drug Court Month and treatment courts across the country are celebrating the countless lives saved, families reunited, and communities transformed by these unique programs. To commemorate this year’s event, National Association of Drug Court Professionals has launched a campaign to urge members of Congress to support these courts.

These days Chelsea is busy. She says that every single one of the clients in her treatment program is addicted to opiates. Her message to them is one of hope, passed on from her own journey from addiction to recovery. “There is a son, a daughter, a husband, a father, a wife, and many other people out there addicted to drugs who do not see a light at the end of the tunnel,” she says. “I hope that one day there is enough treatment to help those who need it. People need to be given a second chance and shown there can be a much better life ahead of them. I am living proof.”

Melissa Fitzgerald

National Association of Drug Court Professionals

Melissa Fitzgerald is a Director with the National Association of Drug Court Professionals (NADCP), a nonprofit committed to putting a treatment court within reach of every person in need. She previously led Justice For Vets, a division of NADCP committed to the expansion of veterans treatment courts which connect justice-involved veterans with the treatment and services they have earned. As an actor, Melissa is best known for her seven-year role as Carol on the television series "The West Wing."
  • Luis Colina

    So proud of you!