"If it weren't for drug court, I'd probably be dead," says Rebecca Robinson, reflecting on an eight-year addiction to painkillers that eventually landed her in Buncombe County's Adult Treatment Court.
An Asheville native, Robinson says she first started taking pharmaceuticals to deal with pain from ulcers and gallbladder surgery, but the habit started spiraling out of control as she went through a difficult divorce.
"It was a roller coaster of depression and the Percocets seemed to numb my ability to deal with pain," she says, explaining that at her low point, she was taking 90 of the prescription narcotics a day. "I was in a deep, deep addiction, so much so that I couldn't get out."
All of that changed in September 2007, however, when the 46-year-old mother of three and freelance cleaner was arrested for forging prescriptions in five counties and faced a choice: seven to nine years of jail time at the state penitentiary in Raleigh or enrollment in drug-treatment court, which offers qualifying nonviolent drug offenders like Robinson a strict program of probation, treatment and community service.
The program soon forced Robinson to see a counselor regularly, attend five AA meetings a week, observe a 6 p.m. curfew, undergo stringent drug testing, and shovel goat manure at the Western North Carolina Nature Center. The penalty for slipping up and not making it to a counseling session or an AA meeting? Jail time, which Robinson says didn't seem like such a bad option when she realized how tough the drug-court program was going to be.
"It was hell for the first few weeks. Because you go through a physical withdrawal, which was absolutely horrible," Robinson says. "At the time, when you've just come off drugs, and you have to do stuff, and they're holding your freedom over your head, it's like 'Oh dear God, maybe seven to nine years wasn't that bad.'"
Now, a year and a half into the program and about to successfully graduate in a few weeks, Robinson says the rigid schedule was just what she needed to get her life back together. "It's brought me back to where I was before I was doing pills. It gave me my life back," she says.
Buncombe County Adult Treatment Court Coordinator Norma Grivich says she's seen success stories like Robinson's again and again. "It's a really structured program, and it works — I've been in the field for over 30 years, and it's the most effective program I've ever been involved in," says Grivich, who's worked over the years as a magistrate, probation officer and substance-abuse counselor.
To back up her observations, Grivich points to studies that show 75 percent of graduates of the 2,400 drug courts in the United States never see another pair of handcuffs. Currently serving about 75 Buncombe participants a year, Grivich also touts the program's savings to taxpayers.
According to Grivich, it costs $4,200 to $4,600 per year to put someone through drug court, while it costs between $28,000 to $40,000 per year to house someone in prison. That's a major reason why North Carolina's court system followed other states' leads and started the program 15 years ago, she says.
"The courts just saw that there were so many chemically-dependent offenders coming through the criminal justice system, and it was that revolving door — seeing them come back and come back," she says. "If they're getting treatment, they have close accountability, and they're answering to a judge, that makes more sense than having them sit in a prison cell costing taxpayers much more money."
Judge Alan Thornburg, the resident Superior Court judge who presides over the local drug court, also touts the program's benefits. With an annual retention rate that averages over 50 percent, the graduates he sees come out of the court
"generally become productive citizens and taxpayers when they would otherwise have been wards of the State," he says of the program.
Even with all its success, Grivich says that although demand for the program is higher than ever, state funding is down. "The state has cut treatment funds to the point where some of our folks are unable to get the higher level of treatment they need," she says, noting that more money is particularly needed to help provide some participants safe shelter in halfway houses.
The funding shortfall doesn't sit well with Robinson, who sees herself as living proof that the program works. "They give funding to other things that are just absolutely preposterous," she says.
Now working at McDonalds as she studies for her GED exam, Robinson says she's so inspired by her experience in drug court that she's considering becoming a substance-abuse counselor to help others. "I'm so grateful of where I am now, that I want to help other people who have this problem," she says. "I always knew deep down that I had more to offer the world than what I'd been doing."
Jake Frankel can be reached at email@example.com or at 251-1333, ext 115.