James Marshall walks with his son, Gunnar, and girlfriend, Chelsea Ainsworth, in Medford. They are current participants in Jackson County's Adult Drug Court and are set to graduate in August. Mail Tribune / Jamie Lusch

A new life — for some

In his life before fatherhood and community college honor roll, a homeless and heroin-addicted James "J.P." Marshall racked up his seventh felony in five months selling goods worth more than $1,000 that he'd stolen from a Medford Walmart.

Clutching a spiral notebook in front of Jackson County Circuit Judge Patricia Crain on a Monday afternoon in April, Marshall needed to compose himself several times as he pushed through his letter reflecting on those he'd harmed by feeding his addiction through crime. He remembered ultimately becoming someone he didn't recognize.

"I struck fear in every man, woman and child," Marshall read, removing his glasses to wipe away tears. Marshall told the court he now understands how many were impacted because of his crimes, which included first-degree theft, heroin possession and identity theft. He impacted taxpayers and the prices law-abiding customers pay at the store, he read.

Crain commended Marshall on the progress he'd made. He had become a mentor to others in his 12-step program and recently attended a program retreat. His girlfriend of four years, Chelsea Ainsworth, with whom he has an infant son named Gunnar, has made similar progress in drug court, defying the poor odds of couples recovering from addiction together.

"It isn't just one impacted," Crain told Marshall.

This is Jackson County Adult Drug Court, a rigorous, state-funded, alternative sentencing program that holds repeat property crime offenders accountable for their drug treatment. Those who pass the 18-month program get their charges dismissed. Organizers say drug court provides offenders a chance to break free from a life of crime and the criminal thinking behind it.

Participants must attend regular court hearings, comply with drug treatment and undergo regular drug testing. They must complete community projects and write apology letters that they read during a court hearing in which victims are invited to attend. 

Marshall and Ainsworth are now a year and a half into a clean and sober life and will graduate from drug court together on Aug. 25. They both attend Rogue Community College, where Marshall has a 3.8 GPA and is working toward a career in energy systems engineering. Ainsworth is studying Spanish, and while she's less sure of her career path, she hopes to pursue a field helping others.

Before drug court, both were couch-surfing with fellow addicts and stealing to support their addictions. Marshall said he'd tried to get clean before but had failed. Both said they couldn't have turned themselves around without drug court.

"Drug court is so special to us," Ainsworth said, holding her son. "It's given us new lives."

Treatment coordinator April Murray said that of the 716 local participants in drug court since 2005, 55.5 percent have graduated, a rate slightly higher than the national average of 53 percent. Of the pool of graduates, 15.3 percent committed a new crime within three years, Murray said. The national recidivism rate is 25 percent within that time frame, according to the National Association of Drug Court Professionals.

A 2011 evaluation of Oregon's drug courts, the most recent comprehensive data available, showed cost per participant ranged from $3,200 to $24,700, or $16,400 on average, while a "business as usual" cost per case for offenders who did not enter drug court averaged $9,389, including court hearings and incarceration but not drug treatment.

While the study, conducted by NPC Research, a Portland-based firm that evaluates social service programs, noted the greater cost of drug courts, it also concluded that since one of their main goals is to get people into treatment and to stay in treatment, "Oregon drug courts are succeeding at this goal."

Crain said drug court is more rigorous than prison. Once participants enter, only Crain can decide how and when they leave. For many at the beginning of the program, prison is the easier choice, Crain said.

Missing a meeting, failing a drug test or committing a misdemeanor can land participants in jail for anywhere from 24 hours to seven days, all at Crain's discretion. Committing a major crime or consistently failing to follow program protocols can get participants kicked out altogether.

Jackson County Corrections Division Capt. Dan Penland said drug court jail sanctions contribute very little toward the jail's habitual overcrowding. As an example, there were five such sanctions in April.

“The judge is pretty selective on who she puts in jail,” Penland said. “It’s not like we’re being overcrowded with just them.

“Some of those people were using a lot of jail bed space before they got into those programs.”

OnTrack Inc. is the only facility allowed to provide services for Jackson County's three treatment courts because it's the one who secures the grants from the state Criminal Justice Commission, which funds all drug courts in Oregon.

OnTrack's grants for 2015-16 totaled $1.14 million for Jackson County's treatment courts, which are: Adult Drug Court; Community Family Court, for drug-addicted parents whose kids are in the welfare system; and Recovery Opportunity Court, which offers felons with drug problems who've violated their parole an opportunity to avoid returning to prison.

The bulk of the grants pays for counselors, data trackers and administrators, the rest for subcontractors including data collectors and evaluators.

During the May primary, when Crain successfully ran for re-election, challenger David Orr, a Jackson County deputy district attorney, criticized the drug court program's effectiveness and its exclusive relationship with OnTrack. Orr called OnTrack's contract with the court a "gold mine."

Crain noted the county isn't involved in the selection of treatment providers and that OnTrack Executive Director Rita Sullivan has been the grant applicant since "day one," starting with Community Family Court in 2000. Because the grant program is competitive, another treatment center could apply, Sullivan said.

Another major drug treatment program in Jackson County, Addictions Recovery Center, had provided support in the early years of Adult Drug Court until about seven years ago, according to ARC Communications Coordinator Joe Wilson. Wilson said longtime ARC staff don't remember why they're no longer involved, but they'd happily assist again if asked.

"We stand ready to serve," Wilson said.

Sullivan said Jackson County's treatment courts started using only OnTrack because consistency became a priority during an initial pilot program, studied by NPC Research.

"The dosing (treatment protocols) has to be consistent," Sullivan said.

Crain said a single treatment provider for drug court is a "best practice" found in Multnomah and Josephine counties, among others. Multnomah County's STOP drug court, Oregon's first drug court program, partners only with the InAct treatment program.

Drug court involves a judge, treatment counselors, probation officer and treatment coordinator. All must attend weekly court hearings, which can be a challenge with just one set of counselors, Crain said. Schisms in philosophies between agencies also can cause problems, Crain said.

"It's a nightmare with more than one," Crain said.

Sullivan said OnTrack and ARC have since focused on different areas of drug treatment as a way to best use their resources. ARC offers medical detox services for Jackson County, along with adult residential treatment and sobering services, while OnTrack offers treatment programs for adults, teens and families. 

"We don't duplicate services where we don't need to," Sullivan said.

Wilson said he doesn't see OnTrack as competition, acknowledging the need for treatment services is greater than centers can provide. Wilson said access to treatment options is ARC's higher priority.

“If people are getting the help that they need, that’s more of a win,” Wilson said.

Grants don't cover the full costs of drug court, Crain said, and the program serves people with little to no extra money who pay restitution for their crimes. As for personnel costs, Crain said working in treatment court demands dedication beyond staff's pay.

"Nobody's getting rich," Crain said.

Upon graduation of the program, participants share lessons they've learned on a locally produced video before reading valedictorian-style speeches, culminating with Crain announcing case dismissals. Some may see celebrating a convicted person's accomplishments or dismissing their charges as soft on crime.

Crain said many people outside the program believe the crux of drug crime is that it's not strict enough. Crain disagrees.

"We're trying to change that stigma," Crain said.

As a recovering addict, Marshall said Adult Drug Court has been "so much more" than a "get-out-of-jail-free card." By mandating he stay at the Medford Gospel Mission at the beginning of his recovery, Marshall learned structure he hadn't known before. Through OnTrack, he learned 12-step programs to help stay sober.

"It's been a miraculous thing for me," Marshall said.

Penland has witnessed many repeat offenders break the cycle of addiction and crime through drug court programs.

"It's not just an easy out," Penland said. "They've really got to work."

Public defense attorney Alyssa Bartholomew has seen drug treatment court programs make a direct impact on her clients. She said the rigorous program isn't for every criminal, but those ready for change can see a difference.

After her clients complete drug court, "a lot of times I won't even recognize them because of how different they look," Bartholomew said. "After doing this for 15 years that's kind of a nice thing.

“I find that for the first time in their lives they become more honest.”

Honesty is a core focus in addressing criminal thinking, Crain said, as important as addressing the addiction. Participants who are honest about their relapses, alerting their sponsors and OnTrack immediately, may have to only write a paper on what they learned, rather than serve sanctions like those who lie or try to tamper with their drug test.

"Criminal thinking is the whole nut of it," Crain said.

At an April orientation for new drug court applicants, Murray told them that lies create additional lies, becoming a stress that can cause relapse.

Often participants have never had a positive relationship with authority until drug court. Crain's priority is to be participants' cheerleader and show trust with a gentle, yet firm approach. 

"They already consider themselves losers," Crain said. "They need you to tell them, 'You can do this!'"

Learning to address problems holistically was a challenge for Crain at first. Judges start out as lawyers, who look at cases with a particular lens that eschews the personal reasons someone committed the crime.  

"We're not trained to deal with people like a counselor," Crain said.

Crain said a gentle and friendly approach isn't right for all personalities.

"I can be harsh when needed," Crain said.

During a hearing, she has to gauge whether the participant is feeling up or down, how they've behaved and what course of action to take.

"There's no overdoing praise," Crain said. "There is overdoing punishment."

Reach reporter Nick Morgan at 541-776-4471 or Follow him on Twitter at @MTCrimeBeat.

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