2016-12-29 / Life in Leelanau

Drug Court’s new program helps offenders find hope beyond bars

By Patti Brandt Burgess
Of The Enterprise staff


JUDGE MICHAEL S. Stepka, pictured being sworn in for his second six-year term by Leelanau County Clerk Michelle Crocker at the Dec. 20 County Board meeting, is among those in the county considering rehabilitative alternatives to jail. JUDGE MICHAEL S. Stepka, pictured being sworn in for his second six-year term by Leelanau County Clerk Michelle Crocker at the Dec. 20 County Board meeting, is among those in the county considering rehabilitative alternatives to jail. A new 86th District Drug Court tailored to offenders who are addicted to heroin, prescription opioids and other narcotics has been up and running since October.

Judge Thomas J. Phillips, who oversees the new specialty court, has already been told by some offenders how grateful they are that they got the opportunity to be in the program. Some have told him it’s the first time their substance abuse has ever been addressed, Phillips said.

“It’s exciting to see the enthusiasm of those who want to improve their lives,” Phillips said.

The opioid epidemic that is being seen across the country is also being seen locally, Phillips said.


THE PUBLIC is invited to attend a free forum at the Leelanau County Government Center, “Rehabilitative Alternatives to Jail,” at noon Wednesday. The forum is sponsored by the League of Women Voters. THE PUBLIC is invited to attend a free forum at the Leelanau County Government Center, “Rehabilitative Alternatives to Jail,” at noon Wednesday. The forum is sponsored by the League of Women Voters. “It’s here in Traverse City, it’s in every county in our state,” he said.

After being recommended for Drug Court, offenders must voluntarily agree to participate in the program.

Phillips has from time to time worked with people in Sobriety Court, which is for people with alcohol driving offenses, and Veterans Court for offenders who have served in the military. But this is the first time he’s been at the helm of a specialty court and working with people who actually want help, who want to change.

And helping offenders helps everybody, he said.

“We want to make the community safer and we want to improve lives,” Phillips said. “We have people who are dying right now because of opiates. If we can help them we will also help the community.”

Drug Court and other programs that aim to address those issues that previously would have landed someone in jail are the topic of a “Rehabilitative Alternatives to Jail” forum being presented at noon on Wednesday at the Leelanau County Government Center.

The public is invited to the free forum, which is sponsored by the League of Women Voters.

The panel is made up of District Court Chief Judge Michael S. Stepka; Sherise Shively, manager of the Community Corrections program; Joseph Povolo, Family Court administrator; associate Judge Michael Long from the Grand Traverse Band of Ottawa and Chippewa Indians; and corrections officer Diane Speas, who runs an art program at the Leelanau County Jail.

The League meets once a month and tries to present topics that are of interest to the community and reflect League principles, which include the idea that government should be responsive to all of its citizens.

“From our experience we see a clear overlap between substance abuse, mental health challenges and poverty and then people becoming involved in the criminal justice system,” said Marian Kromkowski, president of the League.

Kromkowski is also an attorney who works in family law. For people with underlying issues, locking them up is not always effective or a good use of public dollars, she said.

And those who are locked up will eventually get out, she said.

“When they get released, if they aren’t treated we’re back to square one,” Kromkowski said.

The 86th District Court in October received a $50,000 grant from the State Court Administrator’s Office to establish the new court.

While similar to Sobriety Court, Drug Court is specifically for people who’ve been charged with possession or delivery of a controlled substance, said Carol Stocking, 86th District Court administrator.

“The drugs that we’re really looking at are heroin, cocaine, methamphetamine or prescription opioid drugs or narcotic drugs,” Stocking said. “It’s the drugs that are really out there killing people.”

Putting those people in jail is not helping them, she said.

County prosecutors will be the gatekeepers of the program, which will only be for those people who are using drugs or selling drugs to support their own habit — not those who are dealers.

“It’s really for the people who are at risk of overdosing or abusing the drugs,” Stocking said. “The user is not the dealer.”

Phillips said people who abuse opiates need different treatment modalities than those who abuse alcohol, and Drug Court will have its own team of personnel.

“It’s a different population,” Phillips said. “And we don’t want people who are using alcohol to cross over to opiates.”

Overall, drug and sobriety courts have been shown to reduce crime and unemployment.

Sobriety Court was founded locally in 2001 by the now retired Judge Michael Haley. It has been very successful and was recently lauded by the Michigan Supreme Court, as statistics show that less than 1 percent of those who complete the program re-offend within two years, compared to 21 percent of similar offenders not in the program.

Drug court will include testing for alcohol and drugs and will require offenders to attend several Narcotics Anonymous meetings per week.

Participants will also get counseling, meet frequently with their probation officer and attend review hearings every other week to see how they are doing.

Sherise Shively manages the court’s Community Corrections program, which is another way to keep non-violent offenders out of jail and prison. That program also addresses some of the underlying issues for offenders, which often include a lack of life and employments skills.

Community Corrections also places offenders in residential drug and alcohol treatment programs and in recovery or sober-living houses.

And Joseph Povolo, Family Court administrator, said a diversion and prevention program targets at-risk kids from about 5th grade to age 17.

The program uses one-on-one counseling, but kids also go kayaking, snowshoeing, hiking and mountain biking.

“We try to expose them to different types of interventions that are going to decrease some of the risk factors that send them to the courts and increase the protective factors that keep them healthy and safe and law-abiding and all the things we want people to be,” Povolo said.

In addition to the jail art program, a baking program meets twice a month and the Remain in Touch program has inmates reading books to their children on digital recorders as a way to stay connected.

Phillips said he knows not everybody going through Drug Court will be successful.

“Some of them are going to make it, some of them aren’t,” Phillips said.

“And that’s hard.”

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