Second chance: graduates of drug court celebrate


A shot at sobriety: Pulaski County drug court the 1st in the New River Valley 

Posted: Sunday, February 22, 2015 10:11 pm

PULASKI — When people used to look at Leroy Robinson, they labeled him a loser. A criminal. A felon.

He had been dealing drugs since he was 15 and was immersed in the lifestyle that the drugs brought with it — “the glamor, the glitter, the money … all of it,” he says. He says he was never an addict though, just a dealer.

That all changed two days after Christmas in 2012.

Robinson said he was in Philadelphia when he was lured down an alleyway during a deal. Two men swarmed both sides of the car and Robinson said he was shot once in the back.

“I tried to put up a struggle because I felt like this is my life,” he said.

The bullet severed his spinal cord, paralyzing him from the waist down. He will now use a wheelchair for the rest of his life.

The shooting was just the beginning of Robinson’s struggle.

He ended up in physical therapy in Roanoke. He continued using drugs, he said.

His addiction began to spiral out of control, and he said he found himself making meth in his basement in Pulaski, hating himself for what he was doing. The drug was controlling his life in a way like never before.

“I was sitting there thinking, ‘Somebody please help me.’ But nobody would come to my rescue.”

Robinson got an intervention of a different sort. In November 2013, a drug task force raided his house and charged him with manufacturing meth and two related charges. He found himself sitting in a cell 23 hours a day.

He sat in jail for nine months before Pulaski County Assistant Commonwealth’s Attorney Skip Schwab offered Robinson a way out — Pulaski County was starting a drug court under the leadership of Circuit Court Judge Marcus Long.

They wanted Robinson to be the first participant.

Drug courts began emerging around the country in the late 1980s as a way for nonviolent offenders to avoid incarceration and become drug-free. These courts offer various rehabilitation programs to those accepted and require frequent and random drug testing. There are various scaled sanctions if the participants test positive or fail to participate in their required community service or counseling. Punishments can range from jail time to something less punitive such as writing an essay.

While the drug court system originated in Florida, it’s taken longer to gain support in places like Virginia — where, out of 150 judicial circuits in the state, there are only 23 operational drug courts. The court in Pulaski is the first of its kind in the New River Valley, with the closest being in Tazewell or Roanoke.

Judge Long leads the court, with the help of several other departments such as the New River Valley Community Service Board, probation and parole staff and various area treatment programs like Narcotics Anonymous. The team meets every other week, then appears in front of Long to update him on the participants’ progress from the last weeks.

Participants are in the program for 12 to 24 months depending on their progress. During that time, they move through four different phases of rehabilitation and counseling.

Currently, the Pulaski program has only two participants — Robinson, 41, and another young man who is not being identified by The Roanoke Times at his request.

However, Pulaski County Commonwealth’s Attorney Mike Fleenor said he expects that number to greatly expand once they receive additional funding from state, federal or private outlets.

“The long-term goal is that at the end of the program, when the participants have successfully completed everything, the charges will then be dismissed,” Fleenor said.

For many on the judicial side, the appeal of drug court is that the participants have immediate consequences if they use drugs in the program. Under the traditional judicial system, if someone is on probation and fails a drug test, they may not appear in front of a judge or two or three months regarding those tests results.

However with drug court meeting twice a month, one positive test is immediately identified and the individual is typically reprimanded.

“When it takes that long [to go in front of a judge], people can kind of lose a sense of the gravity of it,” Fleenor said. “With drug court, the goal is to have a consequence almost immediately. It rapidly speeds up the process of monitoring the substance abuse.”

The idea of drug courts might still be catching on in Virginia, but the success rates of the programs show the difference they make for participants .

Those who graduate successfully from drug courts have a 15 percent chance of recidivism, which is drastically lower than the average 50 percent to 60 percent rate among those arrested through traditional systems, according to Long.

In the long run, 75 percent of national drug court graduates remained arrest-free at least two years after leaving the program, according to the Virginia Drug Court Association. The VDCA was established in 2000 and works to promote the establishment, operation and training required to being drug courts.

Aside from the successes, it’s a large money-saving opportunity for taxpayers. According to Long, for every participant enrolled in drug court, the state saves $20,000 a year they’re enrolled in drug court — whether they successfully graduate or not. Typically it costs $30,000 to $35,000 a year to house a prisoner.

For Long, the lower cost is a benefit, but that’s not what pushed him to begin the drug court.

“It saves a lot of money, but the important thing is what it does for people.”

Dedicated to reform

Long said he has seen everything in his decades of practicing law. But on drug court Thursdays, the circuit court judge says he feels like a kid on Christmas morning.

“It keeps me excited,” he said.

While he may sometimes have a reputation of being stern on the bench, Long’s compassion for helping others is evident through his dedication to running the drug court on essentially no funding.

“He wasn’t going to wait for funding. He was going to go ahead and try,” Fleenor said.

For Long, being a judge provides the unique privilege of helping people, and he intends to spend his last few years on the bench before retirement making as much progress as he can with the drug court.

“We need to do more things to help people,” he said. “Sure, you have to be a little hard in the criminal court, but you also have to be hard in the rehabilitation side. You have to offer things.”

Long also has high hopes to create a mental health court in the region, but specialty courts require jumping through legislative and bureaucratic hoops and require adequate funding.

But there is a less-costly option. A special docket would require setting aside one afternoon for cases involving drugs or mental health where rehabilitation options could be offered. It’s the same principle as a drug court, just a little less formal, Long said.

“We’re so backwards on offering things to people in trouble. You can’t always just throw them in prison and throw away the key. You need to help them.”

Long’s support is one of the factors that has motivated Robinson to do so well in the program.

“I’ve been in courtroom after courtroom and I’ve never met a judge like Judge Long,” Robinson said. “I was blown away by him. My favorite part of our meetings is when he comes down and shakes our hand.”

Lori Trail, the drug court’s coordinator, said that the judge’s encouragement has had a “huge impact” on the participants.

The emotion is not lost on Long either.

“You want to make a difference in our lives and others lives,” he told Robinson. “You’re doing both.”

Long doesn’t expect everything to always be perfect though. He understands relapses happen when dealing with a strong addiction. In a recent weekly session it was determined that the other participant had failed a drug test after being convinced by a friend to use again.

“You slipped up a little. Why’d you do that?” Long said disapprovingly.

“I did, sir. It was stupid,” the young man replied.

“Meth is the worst addiction there is. Are you sure you want to participate in this court?”

“Yes, sir, I do.”

Instead of sending the man to jail, Long ordered him to write an essay, explaining to the court why he had used and how he was going to stop himself from doing it again.

While writing an essay may seem elementary, Trail says that those type of sanctions resonate with the participants who aren’t used to the judicial system giving them a second chance.

“The essay has a purpose in his treatment,” she said. “It’s important to have him start to really think about his addiction and the impact it has and writing an essay will allow him to think about why that relapse occurred.”

Two weeks passed and the young man came back with essay in hand, ready to make amends for his mistake. The participant spilled his thoughts to the court, saying that he was going to refocus his energy and strength on recovery. The only way that would be possible, the young man told the court, would be to remain vigilant and build a support system that would be a positive influence.

“I’m not going to let you down, your honor,” he said. “Thank you for not giving up on me.”

Long looked him in the eye from the bench.

“No one’s going to give up on you. You just don’t give up on yourself.”

Pulaski County addresses drug problem

In 2011, Pulaski County had the highest rate of prescription drug overdoses in the New River Valley, according to the chief medical examiner’s annual report for Virginia. While generally the death rate from overdose prescription drugs has begun to decrease over the years in the county, it remains well above the statewide rate according to the medical examiner’s office.

Now, officials are beginning to see the presence of powdered heroin in the area, signalling a change in the cycle of the local drug culture.

“Drugs permeate our society,” Long said.

But by showing the positive outcomes of the Pulaski court, Trail envisions other localities will become interested before long.

The selection process for drug court participants is up to the commonwealth’s attorney’s office. Fleenor says that right now, they’re being very selective due to the limited space. But even as the program expands, they still have an ideal candidate in mind.

“What we’re looking for is not necessarily young people, but people who have had a lot less experience in the criminal justice system,” Fleenor said. “If someone has a violent or extensive record, we’re not going to give a spot to someone like that. We’d rather see a 22-year-old kid with a minor record and give them a shot.”

Leaving addiction behind

In their fourth drug court meeting, Robinson sat in front of the court with some good news. The father of three grinned ear-to-ear as he told Long, “Your honor, I’ve been offered a job. I’m just so elated.”

Long leaned forward in his chair and a smile came to his face. “I’m elated for you,” he said. “You continue to set the bar higher and higher than I thought possible.”

Robinson is currently going through the interview process for a seasonal job through AmeriCorps. Robinson was made aware of the job through his community service at the Montgomery County Emergency Assistance Program. Trail says that the participants are usually involved in some sort of service or group meeting every day of the week to keep them busy and working toward sobriety.

“Our participants are supporting each other and helping to navigate the expectations we have of them. We try to keep them as busy as they can be,” Trail said.

Robinson, who has been clean for months now, says he’s working to become a role model for his kids. He tells his 10-year-old son, “Daddy’s not going back to jail.”

“This is a miracle what’s happened here,” he said.

With the end of his drug use, Robinson says those labels that have defined him in the past are gone. Now, people describe the smiling young man in the wheelchair as confident. Considerate. A survivor.

“I’m high on life.”


Drug court proposed as Halifax County’s jail bill spirals up


Drug Courts offer savings beyond simply tax dollars


By: | TriCities.com 

Published: September 09, 2012 Updated: September 09, 2012 - 6:00 AM

Two numbers reveal the tangible success behind the first graduation from the new Washington County Drug Recovery Education and Monitoring Court in Abingdon, Va. The first is $35,200, the cost to the county – to taxpayers – of as much as $100 a day if that graduate had been jailed for the past year. The second is $40,000, the annual cost of operating the court, a program to move drug offenders away from addictive, destructive, criminal behaviors and into self-sufficient, drug-free, productive lives.

During Friday’s ceremony, visiting Circuit Court Judge Sage Johnson, who presides over Bristol’s drug court, said the program paid for itself with just one participant. He’s right. Instead of draining the community of the costs for a roof over her head, food on her plate and even health care while in jail, the first graduate of Washington County’s program spent the past year working and paying for her own needs, as well as those of her children. She also addressed the rigorous program requirements, from frequent drug tests to counseling, treatment and education. All the while, she was paying taxes, not consuming them.

But don’t take the judge’s word for the program’s success. The National Institute of Justice, the research arm of the U.S. Department of Justice, reports that drug courts significantly reduce the costs of managing drug offenders – as much as $6,744 a participant considering recidivism rates and long-term outcomes. The recidivism rates themselves also reveal success. The National Association of Drug Court Professionals reports that 75 percent of graduates remain arrest-free at least two years after leaving the program. (The Justice Department reports that roughly 62 percent of prisoners are re-arrested within three years of release.)

Consider too, the intangible proofs. By most standards drug abuse is at the heart of much criminal behavior. The Justice Department reports that 54 percent of all prisoners said they were under the influence of drugs or alcohol at the time of their crimes. Ask any officer you know about what they call the revolving door of drug arrests, convictions, releases and re-arrests.

With little doubt, pulling drugs from the equation would mean less crime. Which is why focusing tax dollars on this form of corrections is a smart move. In expensive-to-operate jails, the focus is punishment by detention, lock the doors and leave. In less-expensive drug courts, the focus is behavioral correction through goal-based scrutiny.

Drug courts are nothing new; the first were created 20 years ago and they’ve been studied extensively. The numbers reveal their successes. But something more important clinches the deal: It’s the ability to regain a life, for oneself and one’s family. Just ask that mom who graduated Friday, saying: “I feel very confident in my future. My kids are happy. I’m home from jail and I’m clean.” Yes, the $40,000 was well spent. Now it’s time to increase the graduation rate, because we deserve the savings – in tax dollars and, more importantly, in saved lives.


Drug Court Graduate: 'My kids are happy I'm home from jail and I'm clean. I'm in a happy place'



Earl Neikirk/Bristol Herald Courier - Wilma Bartley, left, and Debbie Rose wipe away tears as Bridget Matney smiles as it is announced she has graduated from the Washington County Drug Recovery Education and Monitoring Court. Rose is Matney's aunt and Bartley is her grandmother.


 By: Allie Robinson | TriCities.com 

Published: September 08, 2012 Updated: September 08, 2012 - 8:21 AM



What a difference a year can make.

About 52 weeks ago, Bridget Matney had a choice: Go to prison, or hope the newly formed Washington County Drug Recovery Education and Monitoring Court could take her on as one of its first participants.  She had just been charged with her third probation violation – for failing a drug screening – and was coming off a nine-month stint in jail. Drug court, although her last option, seemed mighty promising.

A year later, Matney became the program’s first graduate, basking in the praise and congratulations of her probation officers, mental health and addiction counselors, attorneys and judges during a ceremony held in her honor Friday. “I feel very confident in my future,” she said. “My kids are happy I’m home from jail and I’m clean. I’m in a happy place.”

The program wasn’t easy, said Circuit Court Judge C. Randall Lowe, who presides over the county’s drug court. “These participants have to appear [in court] every Friday,” he said of the first phase of the three-phase program, which can last between 12 and 24 months. “They have to see a drug coordinator once a week. They get drug tested at least two times a week.”

Participants also attend treatment several times a week, go to Narcotics Anonymous or Alcoholics Anonymous weekly and are subject to a curfew. Matney underwent 91 urine drug screenings, which all came back clean, 90 group treatment sessions and 52 Narcotics Anonymous meetings, said Gary Todd, the drug court’s program coordinator.

“This was a very rigorous program to complete,” Lowe said. Robert Hagy, Matney’s probation officer, said he sometimes wondered if Matney would be able to break her drug-addition cycle. He told her Friday how proud of her he was. “You could see a change in Bridget,” Hagy said. “I feel that after she was able to make the conscious decision to make the change in her life, Bridget was able to make a great change.”

Matney was issued court orders Friday releasing her from supervised probation in both Washington and Russell counties. She is on unsupervised probation until she finishes paying off her court fees, which she hopes to do by the end of the year, she said.

Matney’s counselor at Highlands Community Services, Jeff Phillips, said she’s reached the goals she set for herself when the pair began meeting last fall. “I can sit here and think of the goals she told me,” he said. “She wanted a change in life, to maintain her sobriety and to be a good mom. And she’s been very successful so far.”

Today, Matney lives with her parents and her three children, has a driver’s license, and works a steady job at a grocery store. She has been drug-free for 19 months and said her next step is to find a place of her own.

The drug court program in Washington County started last year with $20,000 in drug seizure money and $10,000 each from the United Way of Russell and Washington Counties (which merged this week with the United Way in Smyth County to become United Way Virginia Highlands) and the Washington County Board of Supervisors.

Lowe said a federal grant is in the works, which will fund the program for the next three years. Circuit Court Judge Sage Johnson, who presides over the Bristol, Va., drug court, said the program has proven to be a success with just its first graduate.

“It is a life-changing event for [participants], their families, and more importantly, for the community,” Johnson said. “Over the past year we as citizens of Washington County would have spent money on Bridget: Either $50 … or $100 per day in jail and when she got out she’d still have substance abuse problems, or, we’ve got $40,000 a year invested in a drug court that with one participant has paid for itself.”

He told Matney: “You’re a productive, tax-paying member of society now. Isn’t that what we all aspire to at the end of the day?”

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