Recovering their lives

In a nontraditional courtroom graduation ceremony, addicts celebrate sobriety

Public defender Steven Trenholme asks Kristy Verney, one of five commencement participants last Wednesday (May 24), to explain to Judge Robert Glusman’s courtroom how Drug Court has changed her life.

Public defender Steven Trenholme asks Kristy Verney, one of five commencement participants last Wednesday (May 24), to explain to Judge Robert Glusman’s courtroom how Drug Court has changed her life.

Photo by Evan Tuchinsky

As Rebecca Loughlin sat in Butte County Superior Court last Wednesday afternoon (May 24), she found herself experiencing strong sensations of déjà vu.

Courtroom 3 was holding commencement proceedings for Butte County Drug Court, through which defendants battling substance abuse may receive lighter sentences—including an early end to probation—contingent on completion of a comprehensive treatment program.

Loughlin had experienced this working as a drug and alcohol counselor for the county, for Drug Court, a decade earlier. Seated in the jury box she saw former co-workers as well as program partners from the Probation Department; at the defense table, public defender Steven Trenholme, who’s represented participants almost since the program’s inception in 1994.

“I always wanted to approach the bench,” Loughlin told Judge Robert Glusman, drawing chuckles.

She got her chance.

Wednesday, Loughlin came to Drug Court not in a professional capacity, but a personal one. She, along with three other women and one man, appeared before Glusman as defendants. Part ceremonial, part judicial, this commencement marked the culmination of their 18- to 30-month journeys through the program.

In 23 years, 840 people have successfully completed Drug Court. Butte County was among the nation’s early adopters, taking an idea that began in Florida’s Miami-Dade County in 1989. According to national statistics provided by the Butte County Probation Department, 3 of 4 drug court graduates do not get rearrested, and such programs save up to $13,000 per individual served.

During and after commencement, Loughlin expressed gratitude for Drug Court. She delineated multiple issues that might have precluded her participation, notably her high-profile arrest for felony child endangerment.

In March 2013, her Chico house caught fire with her daughters, then ages 8 and 9, on the property. Firefighters were unable to locate Loughlin; she did not return home until six hours later. Loughlin told the CN&R that the incident, for which she was convicted, occurred while she was addicted to methamphetamine.

“The reality of this disease is it’s stronger than motherhood, it’s stronger than fatherhood, stronger than brotherhood, friendship—it’s stronger than all of that,” she said. “When we know the consequences and continue to use, we’re in our addiction. It’s not a moral deficiency, it’s a sickness.”

Jail time did not halt her substance abuse nor salve underlying problems. Using, in what she described as a “toxic relationship,” Loughlin wound up in custody again for violating her probation. She begged for a chance to participate in Drug Court, knowing from the other side what the program could mean for her.

In July 2015, she started the program—comprising treatment, drug testing and close supervision by probation officers, counselors and court officials. “I would walk past my old office,” she said, “and then I would sit in the room that I used to do treatment in, as the counselor, but becoming the client.”

In July 2016, she met her wife, who has three teenage sons. Loughlin said being raised in Colusa, where she felt she could not acknowledge her sexuality, contributed to her alcoholism and drug abuse.

Now that she’s completed Drug Court, she’s looking to restart her career as a drug and alcohol counselor.

“I’m more qualified than I ever was before,” she said. “I have a heart for people, and this disease, and what it does to people.”

The four other commencement participants had equally moving accounts, which Trenholme and Glusman asked them to share with the county staff and loved ones who packed the courtroom for support.

Kristy Verney, once homeless and estranged from family, now is a stay-at-home mom who’s healed her relationships with her sisters. Andee Burniston also is a stay-at-home mom of a 2-year-old daughter—grateful for the hospital nurse who, during her pregnancy, recognized the signs of addiction and “saved my life.” Jorden Miller completed the program in the minimum of 18 months, fixated on reuniting with his son, and is a working father. Tisha Shoemaker is engaged, working in home care and says that “my worst day today is still better than my best day then.”

These are the success stories that sustain the program’s momentum—and money. May marked National Drug Court Month, coordinated by the National Association of Drug Court Professionals, which lobbies Congress and state legislatures for continued funding.

Glusman praised the Drug Court paradigm and stated his appreciation for the county professionals’ collaboration.

The program involves probation officers, drug and psychological counselors, lawyers from the district attorney’s and public defender’s offices and the judge assigned to Drug Court—this year, Glusman. The intensive intervention takes a lot of effort for all concerned (most significantly the participants), but pays dividends.

“It’s extremely rewarding,” Trenholme said. “Also, I read a statistic from a recent study that 170 people per day in America are dying of drug use—more people will die in America from using drugs than where they’re shooting each other today.

“Well, drug court stops that for clients we get in…. The vast majority of people committing crimes have drug or alcohol problems.”

Glusman stressed to the CN&R the importance of funding for drug courts, which he sees in jeopardy amid tight government finances hitting entities at all levels. Debra Hoffman, supervising probation officer with Butte County, and Jennifer Hard, program manager for collaborative courts with county probation, said this Drug Court is secure because of its proven, data-supported track record.

Trenholme began working with Drug Court in 1999 and estimates he’s represented upward of 95 percent of the participants.

“It doesn’t work for any one reason by itself,” he said, citing the multidepartmental approach.

“The thing about drug courts is the behavioral health component,” added Hoffman, who previously worked as a Drug Court probation officer for five years. She said addiction-treatment facilities can provide recovery skills, “but they don’t necessarily address the issues that cause the addiction to begin with—so they address their substance abuse, but they’re still going to have their underlying issues they may not address. Those issues will come to the surface eventually.”