Grads credit drug court with saving lives. But program director sees impact of budget cuts

Drug court graduates say program changed their lives for the better

Graduates of the Twelfth Judicial Circuit Drug Court program spoke during a graduation ceremony Thursday in Manatee County about how drug court changed their lives.
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Graduates of the Twelfth Judicial Circuit Drug Court program spoke during a graduation ceremony Thursday in Manatee County about how drug court changed their lives.

For two past participants, it's clear where they would be without the Twelfth Judicial Circuit Drug Court program in Manatee County: Dead or in prison.

Jason Bennett, who is a past graduate of the drug court program, and Cobryn Hopkins, who graduated Thursday, both believe they wouldn't be here today without the help and support of the program that saved their lives.

"The only way I can put it is I actually am living now instead of using and running and cheating and lying and stealing and everything else. It has taught me how to live and how to live one day at a time the correct way. I wouldn’t have been able to do that without drug court," Hopkins, 30, said after his drug court graduation ceremony Thursday. Hopkins and 19-year-old Raymond Layhew were recognized for their achievements in a ceremony at the Manatee County Historical Courthouse.

Layhew said he lost a friend while participating in drug court and said the support he received in the program helped him cope with the difficult times and how to deal with problems, rather than turning back to drug use. Without the program, he believed he would still be in jail.

The Twelfth Judicial Circuit Drug Court program was established in March 1997. Thursday marked the 21st annual graduation ceremony. Graduates and their loved ones gathered for the ceremony in the R.B "Chips" Shore Historical Courtroom.

The program is an intensive outpatient drug and alcohol treatment program, using intervention, random drug tests and court supervision.

After 18 and a half months in the program, Hopkins said it was "bittersweet" to graduate.

"I feel ready to be let go... I feel really good about being on my own," Hopkins said.

For Hopkins, alcohol use started in high school, then he got involved in pills and opioids, he said. He thought he had everything. But nine years later, he found himself in jail with nothing.

"I really wanted to stop, I wanted help but I didn’t know how and I heard about the drug court program and I ended up in drug court thankfully. Very, very thankfully," Hopkins said.

In a video message to Thursday's graduates, Circuit Court Judge Deno Economou, who oversees drug court in Manatee County, said there have been nearly 1,100 drug court participants over the years and 83 percent of them have not been rearrested after successfully completing the program.

The program is facing a challenge now that the Florida Department of Corrections is working to cover a $28 million deficit, according to the Heald/Times Tallahassee Bureau.

The deficit comes from the recently passed and signed $87 billion state budget. It was $28 million short in prison funding. Because of that, the DOC is cutting substance abuse and mental health treatment programs. The cuts include $7.6 million cut from substance abuse services.

Twelfth Judicial Circuit Drug Court Manatee County program director Alfred James said those cuts affect drug court because the program utilizes many of the DOC residential programs for treatment.

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Twelfth Judicial Circuit Drug Court Manatee County program director Alfred James addresses attendees at Thurdsay's drug court graduation ceremony at the Historic Manatee County Courthouse. James said Florida Department of Corrections cuts impact drug court because the program utilizes many of the DOC residential programs for treatment. Sara Nealeigh snealeigh@bradenton.com

Though the program is mainly outpatient treatment, James said there are some participants who need the assistance of an inpatient or residential program to help them get clean. But with those programs being stripped, it's harder to place participants.

"We've had people waiting on beds we've had to make different plans with. We've started some in-house things," James said. "We're still looking at getting into those beds but it's going to take months now instead of weeks."

It won't change enrollment in the program, he said, but will make an impact on "hard cases" where environment is a strong factor in a participant's recovery.

The "in-house things" for participants, rather than inpatient residential treatment, are more intensive outpatient programs, James said. It can include attending more meetings.

"It takes a village to heal an addict," James said.

He hopes to reach out to as many graduates as he can in order to build upon that village.

"Who better to call you on your stuff than somebody who knows what's going on," James said.

Drug court graduate Bennett, who spoke at Thursday's graduation ceremony and was awarded the "Shining Star Drug Court Participant of the Year" award, and said he would be dead without drug court. Now, he is back to work and ministers to men in the jail recovery pod.

To the dozens of people in the courtroom for the ceremony, Bennett recalled "many years" of being homeless and "strung out" on crack, doing what he could to survive.

He said the last time he was arrested, he realized he could go to prison and made a decision to change his life.

"I knew there was something greater I should be doing, like living," Bennett said.

He wrote a letter to Alfred James and handed it to him in person, promising that if he got into drug court, he wouldn't miss a requirement. Bennett said he did just that.

"Today I live every day to the fullest of joy," Bennett said. "I don’t care about what’s behind me I look at what’s ahead in my life today."

Addressing the graduates, Bennett said he knew it was hard, but this too, shall pass.

"It is a tough situation that you’re going through. But I know this: when I was out there using drugs, when I ran out of money, for some reason I was able to get back on my feet find some money and keep going again. So I minister to the men in the recovery pod, that if you take this negative energy and put it into something positive, the sky is the limit as to what you can do with your life," Bennett said.

Bennett said he plans to speak next month at a fund-raising event for the drug court program in hopes the community will step up and provide additional funding for the program that gave him a new life.

"The reality today folks, is that drug court saved my life. I would recommend it to anyone," Bennett said.

Right now, it's a collaboration of resources and agencies to provide for the program.

The state of Florida provides about $149,000 in funds for two drug court positions and some expenses. Manatee County and grant funding cover the rest of the program's expenses. Funding for the Manatee County Drug Court program, according to court officials, should not be impacted by the DOC deficit as dollars for the program don't come from DOC.

James said they're looking for the county to fund them fully. He noted it would free up grant money for other agencies, like law enforcement, to use.

But legislation passed and approved by Governor Rick Scott in March states $6 million from the state's general revenue fund is appropriated to the Office of State Court Administrator for medication-assisted treatment for those in the criminal justice system. The Manatee County drug court utilizes medicated-assisted treatment.

James said he hadn't heard of the legislative funding but hoped it would trickle down to the Manatee County drug court.