With Justice and Liberty for…

The FIRST STEP Act was recently passed and was signed by the President. This was historical.  Federal passage of the FIRST STEP Act provides action on criminal justice reform. Ultimately, the FIRST STEP Act is one step in the right direction for reducing mass incarceration in the United States. The Second Chance Act reauthorization was recently included in the FIRST STEP Act. The changes will reduce incarceration for a number of lesser offenses, many involving drugs.

It is obvious we can’t arrest our way out of the current addiction epidemic, nor can there be wholesale “get out of jail free” cards issued.  The focus will be the supervision and instruction on how to “stay out of jail,” and, if on probation, to make it the last probation ever to be served.  The fact remains that crime and public safety concerns generated by addictive behavior will continue to be addressed within the justice system. In fact, research confirms the criminal justice system can serve to motivate offenders to change behavior, and, in many cases, overcome addiction. Programs can provide reason and resources to reduce recidivism. They provide education and information to guide positive, life-changing behaviors. Probationers and/or those under drug court supervision spend a truly teachable time on a tether.

The justice system’s infrastructure program, outside of and beyond incarceration, must include effective use of supervision, education, and motivational recovery.  It must reinforce the value of services like peer-to-peer programs, skills training, and supportive housing. Communities across the country are working to implement innovative programs within the justice system to overcome the resistance of those served to be served—even under threat of incarceration and the continued misery and chaos of addiction affecting themselves, family, and community. Fortunately the value of Medically Assisted Treatment and Recovery is recognized in overcoming craving and providing relief from the agony of withdrawal.  The brain begins to be receptive to positive behavioral change.

I recently participated in a Webinar titled Utilizing Peer Support in Probation Programs. This was sponsored by Faces and Voices of Recovery and moderated by its Executive Director, Patty McCarthy Metcalf, and Susan Broderick, Board Chairwoman of The Phoenix.  It featured an innovative approach to probation in the Denver, Colorado, justice system. The primary presenters were: Scott J. Prendergast, the Probation Manager for Denver Adult Probation whose job duties include assisting in the development, implementation, and oversight of policies, procedures, and special programs—including the Specialized Drug Offender Program (SDOP); and Steve D’Ascoli, CAC III who has been with Mile High Behavioral Healthcare for nine years. That and other agencies provide treatment for the SDOP. Scott outlined some of the dramatic changes made through the SDOP. Beginning with a check on situational reality and review of rules and protocols, recognizing the fact that most probationers did not have transportation, cell phone, money, and/or housing. In the throes of drug abuse or addiction, they feared the pain of withdrawal more than jail.  They saw no motivation or hope for sobriety. The probation department, faced with limited resources and looking beyond past practices, developed a program based on consideration, connections, and community.  The Drug Courts also play a critical role in the process, providing a path through the justice system to liberties for offenders and families.

One important change to support consideration, convenience, and compliance is that drug tests (UAs) are required but on a set schedule rather than at random. They established partnerships with treatment and recovery support providers. Also, the department established a close and critical relationship with Denver Health. In a take it to ‘em approach, probation officers are encouraged to meet with probationers at the provider facilities. An important partner is The Phoenix. It offers a free sober active community to individuals who have suffered from a substance use disorder and who choose a sober life. They use a peer support model. The officer and probationer may go to The Phoenix to workout and communicate.  Probationers meet in a group, form quasi-communities, and meet with peers. Peers have the lived experience of going thorough probation and living a healthy life without drugs.  Peers make positive connections. Peers reduce fears, give hope, and show them how to dig in with dignity. Ritual and fellowship provide the sticking stuff. With the probationers’ sense of connection, community, and confidence, the success of the program has been outstanding. It  has reduced recidivism and improved recovery outcomes for the probationers seeking hope, health, and a life with liberties and to those who support and encourage them, Scott bases his approach on this quotation, “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”  Maya Angelou

Merlyn Karst

Recovery Advocate, Denver, Colorado

Founding Board Member, Faces & Voices of Recovery