Court offers path to out of addiction

HUDSON–On November 16, the Columbia County Treatment Court conducted the year’s second graduation. The event celebrates the work of a team of government employees that has guided seven people addicted to drugs or alcohol out of the confines of the criminal justice system.

The ceremony is conducted in the large, domed main courtroom of the county courthouse. The jury box was filled with representatives of the treatment court team members: Twin Counties Recovery Services, Columbia County Public Defender’s Office, Columbia County Department of Human Services, Columbia County Department of Social Services, the county Probation Department, the District Attorney’s Office, and the Columbia County Sheriff’s Office.

An atmosphere of celebration prevails. Participants sit at the tables customarily reserved for the accused. But instead of lawyers, many sit with their children. People laugh and joke and children fuss. Friends, family members and other treatment court participants sit in the audience.

Judge Jonathan Nichols acts as master of ceremonies. His usual courtroom demeanor of stern impassivity falls away in treatment court graduation. His expression indicates he is proud of the work the treatment court does, enjoying the sight of families reunified and the hope on the faces the graduates.

Gwen Avent, who said little to the assembly but wears a look of satisfaction, handles the daily business of the program. Judge Nichols presided over the ceremony from a podium set up at the side of the bench, as he has since July 2005. The judge welcomed everybody and introduced members of the treatment team, with special attention to Ms. Avent. “She is, for me, an important source of feedback and often spirited discussion. And for the participants she gives the hard realities that can save your life.” This elicited a round of applause.

There were two guest speakers, both of them successful graduates of the treatment court. Sarah Lang said she was in jail on numerous charges and hospitalized with an overdose. “Then I met Gwen,” she said. “There were bumps and setbacks, but people believed in me and held me accountable.”

Therese McHale said she’d had four years, nine months and 26 days of sobriety. Now she is finishing a four-year degree from  SUNY Albany. Remembering the bad old days she said “If someone told me the things I could do with my life, I wouldn’t have believed them.”

One by one the graduates come to the podium to receive their certificates. More often than not they are accompanied by friends or family members in a demonstration of support. Judge Nichols asks each of them to say how many days they have maintained their sobriety. For Ken it was 493 days. His drug of choice was alcohol.

For Geofrey it was 543 days. His friend Dave McGrath presented him with the certificate. Judge Nichols recounts for the assembly some of the details of the road to recovery, recalling that Geofrey showed up for the first court meeting drunk.

Charlene R.M. came next. She was 426 days sober. She came to the podium with her sister niece and nephew to assist with the presentation.

Bryan P.’s story was different because he had graduated once before but relapsed. “I changed but the world didn’t. I went back into that same old environment.”

Ms. Avent advocated for him and he was brought to treatment court for a second time. “I was an addict- I knew I didn’t belong in jail.” Now Bryan is in college. He is also speaking to high school health classes in the Capital District, where his story has been picked up by local television stations.

Ms. Avent said that 245 people have gone through the treatment court process since it began, and of them 35 were unsuccessful. But she is quick to add that some of those 35 returned a second time and have maintained sobriety.

Jennifer L., who came to the podium with her daughter, was in treatment court for both family and criminal treatment court. Judge Nichols explained the distinction. Family treatment court means that the parent of a child or children is identified as neglectful or putting their children at risk because of their addiction to drugs or alcohol. Their behavior is otherwise legal. While staying out of jail is a strong motivator for the correction of criminal behavior such as DWI or possession of an illegal substance, a participant in family treatment court has the return of a child or children as his or her primary motivation. “Their greatest sanction is restriction from their children,” the judge said.

Most of the criminal court participants spent time in jail and acknowledged that this is an important motivator. “Jail is degrading,” said Geofrey. “It sucks the life out of you. It’s cold, nobody cares, you are told what to do 24/7, when to eat, when to sleep; you have no choices. Like that other guy said, I knew I didn’t belong in jail. Everything I did wrong was because I suffer from an addiction.”
“I had everything, a good job, a house, a wife, and I never saw it coming. I wondered how did I come to this?” Geofrey continued: “Treatment court is hard. You have to commit to the program. In jail people told me, ‘Just do your time.’ For them that was easier.”

Whitney G. was graduating from family treatment court. She brought her three young children with her. She has 594 days of sobriety. Judge Nichols held one of the infants and Whitney held the other as she addressed the assembly. She said it was not easy. Addressing the team she said “Frankly I couldn’t stand a lot of you guys, but I am grateful.”

Katherine L. is 499 days sober. She brought her young son with her to receive her diploma.
After the ceremony, everyone adjourned to the next room for cake and cookies and conversation. As he left the courthouse, Assistant Public Defender Ian Crimmins said it was an honor to be part of the treatment court process. “It reaffirms my faith in humanity,” he said.

Currently there are about 40 people at various stages in the combined criminal and family treatment programs.

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