Efforts underway to reform Oklahoma County drug court
On a recent Monday morning, roughly 30 drug court participants filed into Oklahoma County Judge Kenneth Stoner’s courtroom.
To start the docket, Stoner talked about not using cough syrup or Nyquil, which can make a urinalysis positive for alcohol, discussed the importance of New Year’s resolutions and then pulled out a speaker to play "Eye of the Tiger."
“The best motivation to be in this program is that you want to build a new life for yourself that is exactly what you want it to be,” Stoner said. “Now let’s get the party started.”
The music served as the walk-up song for a man graduating from the program — a feat that can take years, thousands of dollars and countless hours in therapy, treatment and court.
Amid claps, the man walked to the front of the courtroom to give a speech.
“I want to start by saying how thankful I am for this program,” he said. “It saved my life … . This is the first time I’ve ever felt normal. This is the happiest I’ve been in my life since I was a kid.”
Since Stoner took over the drug court program in February 2018, various reforms have shifted the focus toward new incentives and creative sanctions outside of just sending someone to jail for a failed urinalysis, missed treatment or other infraction.
Between July 2018 to July 2019, jail days decreased 65% from the same time period the year before, according to numbers provided to the Oklahoma County Criminal Justice Advisory Council.
That decrease was estimated to save Oklahoma County about $74,000 in jail costs associated with sanctions from the program.
“He has set up a way of increasing the severity of sanctions and using jail as an ultimate consequence instead of the first tool,” said Tim Tardibono, executive director of advisory council. “By doing that, he is keeping people out of jail, in the program and moving toward success. That results in people breaking addiction, keeping jobs and at home with their families.”
How drug court works
Drug court is a diversion program meant to help those who are high risk and high need by providing a supervised recovery process in exchange for dropped charges and a life free of addiction.
Last year, 126 individuals graduated from the program, which saved more than $16 million in incarceration costs, according to advisory council numbers.
People accepted into the program have usually failed other probation, have a mild to severe substance abuse disorder and are prison bound, Stoner said.
But not everyone makes it into drug court.
Stoner’s office also assesses someone’s criminal history, antisocial behavior and thinking, work, housing, education, health and level of substance abuse or mental health issues. Many lawyers and case managers have to approve, as well.
Currently, the program has around 450 participants and an 85% graduation rate. Stoner said the goal is to increase that to around 650 participants.
“Drug courts, unfortunately, have had a reputation of putting people in a place to fail,” Stoner said. “Some people in the community here do really believe that. But with a graduation rate of 85%, that’s not true. So there is still work to do to change the perceptions of some people.”
Changes lead to success
Stoner hopes recent reforms will be part of changing those perceptions.
He attributes the decrease in jail days to three key adjustments: Increasing incentives for individuals who follow program guidelines, creating new sanctions outside of jail stays and a partnership with the Oklahoma City-County Health Department to hire two peer educators.
Incentives can be small, like the hundreds of certificates passed out to those who complete phases of the program or reach a number of sober days. Stoner will give out Payday candy bars to people who get a job.
Sometimes incentives are larger, like getting a gift card to Starbucks or the gas station. Clay Bennett, chairman of the OKC Thunder ownership group, recently donated tickets.
“The science says that incentives are powerful in changing behavior, as much as or more than a sanction,” Stoner said. “We hadn’t done a good job of having an adequate number of incentives, so we are trying to think of everything we could work in to reward someone for good behavior.”
With sanctions, many levels now stand between a missed therapy session and a jail stay.
These include writing papers, heightened supervision, a curfew, multiple weekends working with a jail-labor program or sitting through an entire day of drug court just to watch.
Stoner said the shortest jail sanction used to be two days. Now, he may have someone go to jail at 10 a.m. and leave at 4 p.m.
“For every step that you can put in before jail, the better,” Stoner said. “Jail stays are supposed to be the heavy sanction. There are things you go to jail for — and we still do have people stay at the jail — but there, you end up spending time with antisocial people, out of your job and not in treatment. And it’s pretty traumatic.”
The two peer educators have also been an invaluable resource for program participants, Stoner said.
Both have been through similar programs, so they are able to connect with individuals on a personal level, he added.
Efforts to expand
New funding is an important step in continuing to provide incentives and grow the program, said Teresa Rose Crook, director of Communities Foundation of Oklahoma.
Along with drug court fees, participants are paying down restitution and other costs, which can be a barrier for some, she added.
This is why a nonprofit account was created to accept donations from the community solely for drug court.
“We wanted to create an opportunity for individuals to contribute to the financial requirements for people that aren’t in a position to pay for those but want to go through the drug court process,” Rose Crook said.
Along with the fund, Rose Crook is directing the creation of a community advisory board that will work to spread awareness and education of drug court.
“This is a tremendous investment opportunity,” Rose Crook said. “For people that want to contribute to improving their community, this is an investment in other humans and the public sector.