February 13, 2011

DAs Pick Entrants to Drug Court Programs

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Emily Linville sits inside Judge Sarah Smith's courtroom in downtown Tulsa on Jan. 10, 2011. After two years of being clean, Linville will graduate drug court next month. Linville fought an addiction to Lortab pills and was caught and given the option of attending treatment and drug court.

Adam Wisneski/Tulsa World

Emily Linville sits inside Judge Sarah Smith's courtroom in downtown Tulsa on Jan. 10, 2011. After two years of being clean, Linville will graduate drug court next month. Linville fought an addiction to Lortab pills and was caught and given the option of attending treatment and drug court.

Emily Linville grew up hearing how to illegally call in a drug prescription. It was that knowledge that landed her, a sister and their mother in Tulsa County’s Drug Court at the same time.

But, only Linville has graduated from Drug Court.

Her sister, Mary Beth Linville, 25, violated program rules and was sent to prison in January to serve four years for prescription drug fraud and bogus checks.

Their mother, Mary Kathleen Linville, 52, was charged Dec. 16 with four counts on attempting to obtain prescription drugs by fraud. Her previous convictions include prescription drug fraud in 2007 and 2008 and an escape from prison. In 2004, she was convicted in Creek County of prescription drug fraud.

“It makes me angry and sad because it’s not like they are facing anything bigger than what I have,” said Linville, 20. “If I can do it, they can.”

Drug-related offenses account for about 12 percent of arrests among females in Oklahoma, while about 50 percent of women in prison are there on drug-related convictions, according to federal and state crime data.

The average sentence in the state for women in drug-related convictions is 5.5 years, according to a Tulsa World analysis of prison sentences since 2000.

Drug court participation in Oklahoma has increased from about 1,500 in 2005 to about 4,200 currently, as more counties add programs.

‘Didn’t give up on me’

Linville’s road to sobriety wasn’t easy.

She pleaded guilty in October 2007 in Tulsa County to obtaining prescription drugs by fraud. But she was arrested in March 2008 and in May 2008 along with her sister for the same offense.

During this time, she had a son, Benjamin, who is now 2 years old.

After Linville was placed in Drug Court in 2008, she struggled. She went to a Tulsa treatment center for about three months, but a dental problem requiring a prescribed painkiller led her to relapse.

Drug Court officials found a six-month treatment program in Waynoka, and she was able to take her son.

“There was nothing close to there, and I was on my own,” Linville said. “Here, I would depend on so many people. When I was there, I learned I could be independent and do things for myself. That is what I needed.”

Linville recalls how her mother showed her daughters as children how to work the medical and pharmaceutical systems. The girls would be sent into pharmacies to pick up the drugs, forge a signature and call in prescriptions as they got older.

They would go to a doctor or emergency room with a problem to get a doctor’s U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration number to forge prescriptions. They would go in pairs to the store—one to pick up the drugs and the other as a lookout in case an employee calls the doctor for verification.

“For my entire life, my sisters and I always said we’d never be like her,” Linville said. “You could just tell she took a lot of pills because she was dopey.”

By age 12, her parents had pulled her and her six siblings out of school with the plan to homeschool, but their addictions got in the way. While her mother sought prescribed drugs, her father, a structural engineer, battled alcoholism.

Eventually, Linville said her mother shared the drugs.

“There was no education going on,” Linville said. “I just saw the drugs and them doing it all the time. When I was a teenager, my back was hurt and they let me take them. That was all it took. It made me feel good, and it seemed to help with the stress.”

Linville has been sober for 1½ years and will officially complete the Drug Court program in February, meaning her case will be dismissed.

She has been working at a local vacuum sales and repair shop and obtained her GED. She and her long-time boyfriend are raising their child and hope to buy a house one day. She does not communicate with her family members who abuse drugs or alcohol.

“Drug Court not only saved me, they didn’t give up on me,” she said. “If they didn’t help me, I wouldn’t have been in rehab or gotten the parenting classes. I don’t think I would be the mom or responsible adult I am right now.”

Special District Judge Sarah Day Smith, who handles the Tulsa County Drug Court docket, complimented Linville in open court at hear final hearing.

“She’s had some struggles with her own family and life but worked this program really hard,” Smith said. “She found a way to help her own family and separate herself from the struggles of others in her family. Once you graduate, we don’t wash our hands of you. We’d love to see you again, and I don’t want to see you back in front of me wearing orange.”

‘DROWNING IN DRUG CHARGES’

Tulsa County launched its Drug Court program in 1996 and has since added four other sentencing courts: DUI (driving under the influence), mental health, veterans and co-occurring, which target people with a mental illness and addiction.

The specialty courts movement began nationally in the late 1980s. Tulsa County was first with a pilot program in 1996. The Oklahoma Legislature approved a bill in 1997 to support the programs.

Oklahoma’s law gives power of program entry to the district attorney, unlike other states where judges make the final decision.

New York and Florida were among the first states to institute treatment programs for certain offenders, including drugs and mental health. Those systems have been built up to better meet demand, said Rose Ewing, coordinator of the Tulsa County community sentencing programs.

“They were drowning in drug charges and had to do something different,” Ewing said. “We’re drowning in drug cases, too. It is frustrating when you see someone who would be a good candidate and could change their life but don’t get into the program.”

Tulsa County District Judge Rebecca Nightingale, who monitors the specialty courts, said her attitude toward the programs has evolved since she was a prosecutor in the ’90s.

In the early programs, Nightingale said the only participants accepted were at a low-risk of re-offending and she was skeptical of the outcomes.

Since then, she said the programs have opened up to accepting offenders with more challenging issues, more treatment services are available, and the rate of re-offending among graduates is impressive. Participants are usually on at least a second drug- or alcohol-related charge.

“The court’s role is the same; it just may look a little different,” Nightingale said. “We give it the same judicial function. But now, the resolution can be prison or treatment.”

Nightingale said the personality of a prosecutor can make an impact on an offender’s entrance into a program, but the biggest obstacles are not having enough access to or funding for treatment.

“We’re full and teetering on a waiting list,” Nightingale said. “Other states take everyone in the programs, but Oklahoma isn’t set up that way. I hope in the future as we learn more about treatment, it will reduce our prison population and recidivism. Society will benefit from that.”

Nationally, there are about 2,559 drug courts and 1,219 other specialty courts, according to the National Association of Drug Court Professionals.

‘DO NOT CUT IN LINE’

Oklahoma implemented specialty courts as a method to decrease the number of people going to prison, said Terri White, commissioner of the Oklahoma Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services.

The agency has been pushing the more comprehensive program “Smart on Crime,” which promotes specific programs before and after a person is incarcerated.

“We took a step back by one phase,” White said. “We’re saying we can step back even further to when contact with law enforcement is made initially or prevent any contact with law enforcement.”

The courts are designed to give each participant an individual plan for graduation, which includes home visits, weekly progress reports, random drug testing, and support for obtaining treatment and job skills training.

White said the low re-arrest rate and increases in employment and income among drug court graduates have convinced officials in the criminal justice system that specialty courts work.

But the drawback is a lack of treatment beds statewide. Between 600 and 900 people are on a waiting list for mental health services each day, White said.

“Drug court offenders do not cut in line because that would not be fair to those who haven’t committed a crime and are wanting to get treatment,” White said. “So you may be a person who can’t get treatment because you’re No. 700. By the time you get in, you are now in the throes of using again, have stopped taking your medications, have committed a crime or have had contact with law enforcement.”

Estimated costs for drug court are $5,000 per participant, compared to about $19,000 annually to house someone in prison, according to the state agency. That includes services for male and female programs.

“It only makes logical sense for taxpayers to want to invest in tools that prevent the problem and ultimately drive down the costs until we become a state known for progressive policies and not being No. 1 for incarceration our residents,” White said.

Oklahoma ranks No. 1 in locking up women and No. 5 in the incarceration of men, according to the U.S. Department of Justice.

Tulsa County receives funding from the state, county, private and government grants, and the recent federal stimulus package. The budget has grown from $30,000 in 2000 to $731,000 in the current fiscal year.

All drug courts must provide funding from other sources, and all counties will have a drug court by the year’s end, White said.

“All courts put something in-kind,” she said. “Drug court was designed to be a partnership and a team effort among everyone involved.”