On the fifth floor of the Oklahoma County courthouse, defendants announced the number of days they’ve been sober as they approached the bench.
Whether it was 848 days or 1, every announcement drew applause. Volume and enthusiasm waned as defendants were dismissed over the next two hours.
But leading the applause was Judge Kenneth Stoner, who quickly shifted to missed drug or alcohol tests and the sanctions that offered defendants another chance.
In a state where drug use is rampant and incarceration rates are among the nation’s highest, Judge Stoner runs a program designed to keep addicted Oklahomans out of prison.
Stoner oversees about 400 participants in Oklahoma County’s drug court program. There are at least another 250 defendants in the system who are a fit for the program, he said, but there isn’t room.
Across the state, 59 drug courts offer an alternative for those who struggle with substance abuse and have been charged with a nonviolent felony. Some courts serve multiple counties.
Residents in the panhandle, Cimarron, Texas and Beaver counties, are the only Oklahomans without access to drug court. Rates of substance abuse in those counties are higher than the state average for adults and kids 12 to 17, according to federal data.
Most courts serve adults but a few counties also offer juvenile and family drug courts catering to parents with children in state custody.
Judicial discretion means requirements and sanctions look different in every courtroom.
Participation depends largely on whether the local district attorney is willing to refer people to drug court. And capacity is often lower in rural counties where addiction treatment is scarce.
Success rates vary, too.
In February, Oklahoma County’s graduation rate was 83% compared to a statewide average of 67%.
In a typical courtroom, the prosecution and defense are divided. They sit at tables on opposite sides of the room, passing notes and whispering so as not to tip off the other side.
In Stoner’s court, the tables are pushed together into one workspace where public defenders, prosecutors, case managers and treatment providers talk openly about each case.
As they stand in front of the judge, participants are often surrounded by a treatment provider, attorney and the prosecution. All share the goal of keeping the defendant out of prison.
It Works ‘If You’re Willing to Work It‘
Participants said drug court, even in the most successful counties, has a negative reputation among inmates.
“It sets you up for failure. That’s the rumor,” said Austin Goodwin, who entered drug court early last year. “But it does work if you’re willing to work it.”
Goodwin, whose second-degree burglary charges landed him in the program, hung his head as he approached the judge in early March. “Five days,” he said, prompting a nod of recognition from Stoner who already knew Goodwin had failed a recent alcohol test.
In late February while much of the state was enjoying a few snow days, Goodwin was cooped up at home. He had just separated from his girlfriend. He hadn’t worked in a week. Instead of following his program and redirecting his attention to something healthier, Goodwin told the judge he had a few beers.
Stoner told Goodwin he appreciated his honesty and that he showed up for a test knowing he would fail.
The judge gave Goodwin eight hours of community service and allowed him to enter the final six-month phase of the program.
Drug court has five phases, levels one through four and aftercare. Participants in the final phase spend most of their time meeting with drug court alumni, case managers and peer groups discussing the challenges they will face.
Every phase requires regular urine analysis, which costs participants $10. In the early stages, participants are tested at least 10 times a month.
When defendants complain about the cost, Stoner reminds them their former lifestyle was more expensive.
“Everybody can come up with $100 per month,” he said.
Tests become less frequent as participants progress.
During court on March 2, the judge confronted several participants for diluted tests meaning the lab could not retrieve an accurate result. This can happen if they drink too much water before the test, sometimes in hopes of masking a positive result.
Like Being On Probation, But More Intense
Missed and failed tests are the most common setbacks in Stoner’s court. Lack of transportation or money, work conflicts and forgetfulness are common explanations.
Most participants lapse about a dozen times throughout the 18-month program, Stoner said, with each sanction becoming more severe.
Penalties often start with observing one of Stoner’s other court sessions. Community service and essays about what defendants learned from their mistakes follow. Then jail time, a day or two or three. A few participants with recurring lapses were told they’d be required to move into sober living homes if they didn’t improve quickly. A six-month prison stay is often the final step before a participant is kicked out of the program and returned to prison for their original charges.
Jefferson Jefferson was nervous as he entered Stoner’s court on March 2. The week before, he failed a couple of drug tests and diluted another. He had several lapses during two years in the program, he said. Now, he feared prison.
Instead, Jefferson was sentenced to two days in jail. His relief turned to dread as he sat in the jury box waiting for an officer to handcuff him and take him to a cell.
“It’s just bad in there,” Jefferson said of the Oklahoma County jail, which is under investigation for unsanitary and dangerous conditions.
Participants describe the demands of drug court like being on probation, but more intense.
Thelisa Thompson was up for the challenge.
Thompson had served three prison sentences when she entered drug court early last year. Now, she was charged with three counts of possession and trafficking in illegal drugs. Those charges will be dismissed if she graduates from drug court.
Thompson said she had her first drink at age 10. She was taste-testing cocktails her mother taught her to mix for party guests, she said. She started making extras for herself.
At 13, she started using marijuana and by 14 she was stealing pills from her mom. She used cocaine for the first time when she was 16 and continued chasing a high in search of relief.
“I’d stop using and then depression would set in,” Thompson said. “I’d been homeless since I was 14 and lost my kids. I felt like I wasn’t good enough to be sober. I didn’t deserve it so I’d start using again.”
After being released from jail on bond, Thompson moved into a sober living home as the pandemic moved into the state. Court closures delayed her enrollment in drug court by several months, she said. But she managed to stay sober while she waited. She started the program early last year.
So far, she has received only one sanction for missing a test. She had to write an essay for Stoner. She doesn’t recall the topic.
On March 2, Thompson smiled shyly at the judge as she walked toward the bench, “848 days.”
She read a short speech from the stand, thanking the judge and others for her success before asking to begin the program’s final phase. Stoner happily granted her request.
With five months to go, Thompson has reunited with all four of her children and spends most weekends with her six grandkids.
She moved to north Oklahoma City, away from the friends she had before she was sober. She got a job at U.S. Roasters building electric panels and running wires to roasters. Most of her free time is spent volunteering with Bangin’ 4 Jesus, which ministers to people on the streets, inmates and others like her.
Next month, Thompson will start classes to become a peer recovery support specialist to help others like her.
“Some days are still so hard, but I know I have to fight,” Thompson said. “I don’t know what’s going to happen after drug court. But today, I’m not using. Today, I’m sober.”
CORRECTION: This story has been updated to compare drug court to probation, not parole.
Whitney Bryen is an investigative reporter at Oklahoma Watch covering vulnerable populations. Her recent investigations focus on mental health and substance abuse, domestic violence, nonprofits and nursing homes. Contact her at (405) 201-6057 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @SoonerReporter.