Pubdate: Sat, 04 Jan 2003
Source: State, The (SC)
Copyright: 2003 The State
Author: Lora Hines, Staff Writer
Bookmark: (Drug Courts)


Hundreds Get Back On Track Through Model Program In Lexington County

Holly Long went to her high school graduation, but not to pick up her diploma.

She was working that day, selling marijuana to celebrating classmates.

Smoking, dealing grass and drinking was all that motivated her - until 
about a year ago.

"I never thought I was one of the in-crowd unless I was high," she said.

Long, now 23, quit school at 17, after skipping so many classes she 
couldn't move beyond 10th grade.

But in the middle of December, Long became Lexington County Drug Court's 
101st graduate.

"The only thing I ever graduated from was kindergarten," she told the 
audience. "I never thought I'd get to this day."


Long is one of almost 300 people who have enrolled in drug court since it 
started in July 1996.

Lexington County's adult drug court is one of about 550 nationwide. 
Richland, Charleston and Greenville counties also have them. Lexington 
County also has a drug court for juveniles.

Carson Fox, as an assistant solicitor in 1996, helped 11th Circuit 
Solicitor Donnie Myers set up Lexington County's drug court, the first in 
the state. Now Fox works for the National Drug Court Institute and trains 
drug court professionals worldwide.

"Lexington County created a model that's being used all over the country," 
Fox said. "Donnie is always looking for alternatives. It was a risk for 
him. Talk about foresight."

Nonviolent offenders identified as drug addicts qualify, said coordinator 
Jenny Russ. Graduates get charges taken off their records; dropouts serve 
their time.

Applicants pay a $20 fee. People who are accepted pay at least $1,000 - $20 
every week.


Money raised by participants mostly pays for drug tests and intense 
professional counseling, contracted with the Lexington/Richland Alcohol and 
Abuse Council Detoxification Center, Russ said.

The program is a deal for participants, most of whom probably couldn't 
afford private drug counseling, Russ said. And compared to prison costs, 
she said, it's also a bargain for taxpayers.

It would cost the state at least $17,000 a year to incarcerate each drug 
court participant, Russ said. Thirty-eight are in the program. "If they can 
stay in the program, that's worth millions down the road."

Drug court costs about $236,625 per year to operate, but "the county does 
not give us all that money. We have to pick from everything we can get," 
Russ said.

Myers said it's difficult to keep drug court going. "It's trying to keep 
it's head above water."

He might be forced to end drug court because it's harder and harder to find 
money to keep it running.

"It doesn't look good. It's operating on a shoestring. I'm really concerned 
about it."


Drug court is tough. Each week, most participants must attend several 
nights of counseling, submit to drug tests, attend court, and get jobs or 
go to school full time. That's a lot to ask of someone who hasn't had any 
structure for a long time, Russ said.

"Most people are naive to the fact of how complicated these people's lives 
are," she said. "It's drama for them."

Drug court participants are allowed to make some mistakes - showing up late 
for court or for group therapy. But mistakes come with sanctions, including 
working at the county landfill. Short jail stints can be ordered after 
positive drug tests.

Lexington County drug court's recidivism rate, last checked in 1999, has 
been about 7 percent.

"It probably has gone up," said Russ, who is planning to study the rate 
next year. "Even if it went to 10 percent, I wouldn't be crying.

"We can't expect all of them to make it. Addiction is a disease, and 
(failure) is always going to happen."


Long's graduation a few days ago started as most drug court sessions do. As 
Russ called participants' names, each took a seat in front of Judge Marc 
Westbrook, who reviewed performance reports.

He ordered one man to spend a day in jail and gently admonished a woman who 
hadn't found a job.

Long nervously waited for her name to be called.

She was the first graduate introduced that night. Her classmates, program 
graduates, friends and relatives applauded as she took a seat before the judge.

"You've shown a lot of leadership during the last six months," Westbrook 
said. "That's what we expect.

"This has been a really strong group of graduates. You get attached to 
these people, but I'm delighted to give you this certificate."

Each graduate stood before the audience and offered thanks. Some made 
promises they would return, but not Long. She's learned to live one day at 
a time.

Her father, Frankie Long, approached the front to congratulate his daughter 
before the hushed crowd. They both cried.

"Nobody thought you'd make it," he said. "You fooled me, too, girl. You 
made it through. You've grown up and can make adult decisions. Now, if I 
have troubles, I call her for advice. She's been there for me during some 
tough times these last few months. I love you from the bottom of my heart."


Long is optimistic, but cautious, about her future. While attending drug 
court, she's worked at USC's facility services office and had begun 
studying for a degree in psychology.

Drug court and all its requirements filled the rest of her time. Idle days 
threaten addicts.

"When you quit using drugs, you have all these voids to fill," she said. 
"Drug court became my routine. Every day, it was work, drug court, work, 
drug court."

Long relies on her Alcoholics Anonymous sponsor and friends from her group 
for help. The responsibility and trust she's regained from her family makes 
her feel good.

"I've paid back every dime I've stolen from my parents. I paid them off 
back in October. It took $600 a month for five years."

She has more goals.

"I want to travel. I want to go to France. My class went there for its 
senior trip, but I didn't get to go. I can't go back and get a lot of that 
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