But, on Tuesday afternoon, everyone in the second-floor courtroom of the Dyer County Courthouse was smiling. They hugged one another, indulged in chocolate cake and sipped punch. They were there to celebrate the first two graduates of the 29th Judicial District's drug court.
The drug court began in December 2006 to help persons who abuse or are addicted to drugs. Participants work their way through a series of phases, starting with house arrest, counseling, support-group meetings and weekly court appearances. As the participants work through the program, they are given more freedom and responsibilities. Ultimately, they become productive citizens, who hold jobs and stay off drugs.
"We want you to know how proud we are of you," Circuit Judge Lee Moore told the women as he presented them with plaques. "There is a great responsibility that goes with this."
Moore asked the women to act as role models and mentors for those who are still in the drug court and those in the community.
"The only people who can be role models are people who've had a problem and have risen above it," he said.
Lake County General Sessions Judge Danny Goodman told the women that the changes they've made in their lives are affecting so many others as well. "They realize this is something that can be accomplished," he said.
One of the graduates -Tonya Nelson, 37, of Ridgely, - thanked God for being part of her life and for helping her change her life. "I may not be all that I should be, but I'm a whole lot better than I used to be," she said.
Nelson said she entered the drug court program after being arrested for introducing contraband into the Lake County jail. She said she left marijuana and cocaine at the side of the jail, where one of the inmates could pick it up. She was sentenced to four years in prison; she spent 11 months in jail before joining the drug court in March 2007.
Nelson said she was 22 years old when she began using drugs. She said she didn't have a strong belief system and simply followed the examples set by the people around her. She got hooked on marijuana and hydrocodone and lost her certified nurse assistant license in 2000.
"This program has changed the way I thought about things," Nelson said. "I've changed my way of thinking and changed my way of living. I've learned to do the right thing because it's the right thing to do."
Now that she has graduated, Nelson said she plans to stay involved in the drug court and to help those who are still struggling through. She said she hopes to get her nurse assistant license back and then pursue a licensed practical nurse degree.
The second graduate - a 39-year-old Newbern woman who requested anonymity - said she was grateful for the opportunities provided by the drug court.
"I know God put me here for a reason," she said. And that reason may have been to find her true calling. The woman said she ultimately hopes to become an alcohol and drug counselor. She said her experiences will enable her to help others who are facing the same problems that she has tackled.
The Newbern woman said she began drinking, smoking and using drugs recreationally the summer before her freshman year in high school. She didn't consider herself addicted until she was 28 and tried crack cocaine for the first time. She said she attended a 30-day drug rehabilitation program that didn't work. She later completed a seven-month spiritually based rehabilitation program and returned to drugs four months later. She believes the sobriety she's found in the drug court will last.
"My life has changed," she said. "I'm not just going through the motions to get out of rehab."
She said she genuinely feels different this time and she believes the weekly drug court meetings are the key. "All of us are like one big family," she said, noting that they understand each other's problems and offer support.
The drug court enables participants to face "life on life's terms," the Newbern woman said. "It's not just about drugs and alcohol, it's about coping with life in general."
Drug courts began surfacing nationally in the early to mid-1990s, and came to Tennessee about 8-10 years ago, Moore said. Local officials began getting ready for a drug court in 2005.
Moore said he was looking for an alternative that would work. Prison sentences and drug rehabilitation both have drawbacks. Those who go to prison on drug charges are often released early because of prison overcrowding. Only a small percentage of those furloughed to drug rehabilitation programs actually finish them.
"Just putting (people) in jail and taking them off the streets might solve society's problems, but there aren't enough prisons," the judge said.
Drug courts, nationwide, are much more successful at helping drug addicts change their lives, Moore said.
Goodman established a drug court for Lake County General Sessions Court in April 2006. The first graduation occurred in January, followed by a second in February and a third in March. Another 21 persons are currently working their way through the program. Participants pay $25 a month to cover counseling costs.
The drug court for persons sentenced in Dyer or Lake county circuit courts started in December 2006. Eighteen persons are participating in the circuit-level drug court. The program is currently free to participants because it is funded through a state grant.
The circuit court drug court is coordinated by a team that includes Moore, Goodman, Chancellor J. Steven Stafford, Dyer County General Sessions Judge Tony Childress, local police chiefs, Dyer and Lake county sheriffs, District Attorney General Phil Bivens, District Public Defender Jimmy Lanier, case manager Darrell McElrath, drug court coordinator Rob Hammond and counselors from Here's Hope Counseling Center in Dyersburg.
The team carefully selects participants, and requires that they spend some time in jail before joining drug court. At first, all participants had to spend at least six months in jail, but Moore said the team is reducing that time period some. Anyone who sells drugs for a profit or has prior violent offenses is excluded.
"It's not easy to get into drug court," said Terrie McCarter, a Here's Hope counselor. "You really have to show a willingness and interest in making a change."
Drug court includes four phases.
During the first phase, participants are under house arrest, receive 12 to 16 hours of counseling each week, attend 12-step recovery-program meetings, meet with a case manager and attend weekly drug court sessions. They also must call Here's Hope every morning to see whether they must undergo a drug screening within the next hour, McCarter said. The first phase lasts a minimum of 45 days, depending on the person's progress.
During the second phase, counseling sessions are modified to address problems individual participants may have. Participants continue attending counseling and drug court sessions and 12-step recovery meetings. Counselors introduce "moral reconation therapy," a type of therapy that teaches people how to redirect their thought processes and to escape their personal prisons.
"There's hardly anything we don't cover," she said.
Participants also begin working toward employability. Some learn computer skills or earn GEDs, the general equivalency diplomas given in lieu of a high school graduation. Participants are encouraged to get a job that is approved by the drug court team.
Families are strongly encouraged to get involved because their support helps participants stay sober, McCarter said.
Phase 2 lasts at least six months, she said.
During the third phase, participants attend fewer counseling and support group meetings as they become more productive citizens. The third phase also lasts at least six months and ends with graduation.
After that, participants continue with Phase 4, or the aftercare program. They are encouraged to come back and be mentors to persons who are just joining the drug court. The fourth phases lasts at least six months after graduation, while the participants are still on probation and paying fines and court costs, McCarter said.
Drug court has proven to be a work in progress. Moore said a number of changes have been made since the court began. For example, participants who fail a drug test may be sent back to jail for a while.
"You've got to punish them like a child," Moore said. "But, we're learning, too. We found initially some of our sanctions might have been too rough. You can punish them to point they may lose hope. If you're too severe, you lose them. We need to punish them enough to get their attention but not enough to discourage them."
Participants who do well are rewarded with movie passes, bowling parties, restaurant meals and gift cards to local businesses, McCarter said.
Although it's too early to tell how successful the drug court will be in Dyer and Lake counties, those involved believe that it is making a difference. It can make an even larger difference if the community shows its support.
Moore said the drug court team plans to form a steering committee that will get involved in the drug court. He hopes the committee will help participants find jobs.
McCarter agreed. She said she has started 14 drug court programs in the last 11 years. She believes drug court is one of the most successful methods for helping persons with drug problems.
"For every dollar spent on treatment, it returns $10 to the community," she said. Persons who complete the drug court program become productive members of society and are no longer burdens on society, she said.