Combating addiction with compassion

Karen Freeman-Wilson shares stories about drug court successes

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Anna C.K. Smith / The Torch
Karen Freeman-Wilson, the current mayor of Gary, Indiana, speaks at Lane about improving access to interventions and treatment to combat drug addiction. “You need some opportunity for rehabilitation to address some of the underlying issues that you face,” Freeman-Wilson stated.

Lane Community College Speaker Series hosted Mayor Karen Freeman-Wilson on Mar. 1 for a presentation about drug courts and education. About 30 people attended the event, including Eugene Mayor Lucy Vinis, LCC President Margaret Hamilton, Lane Interim Diversity Chief Greg Evans and other community and school personnel. Freeman-Wilson, mayor of Gary, Indiana, has a long history with politics and drug treatment reform from her time as a judge and attorney general in Gary, a CEO of the National Association of Drug Court Professionals and in leadership roles of many other organizations.

Freeman-Wilson spoke about how drug courts benefit individuals and communities and extolled the virtues of extending drug court methods of education to other social organizations. A drug court program is a treatment-focused process of legally dealing with individuals with drug addiction, an alternative to the traditional justice system process of incarcerating those individuals. Core components include intensive treatment, accountability often through a 12-step program, regular and random drug testing and frequent court appearances.

As a judge in Gary, Freeman-Wilson explained she kept seeing the same faces in court and felt frustrated that the justice system fell short of reducing repeated offenses. Caroline Cooper, an early leader in the drug court treatment program, recommended that Freeman-Wilson check out a drug court in action in San Bernardino, California.

Freeman-Wilson recounted it as the most transformative experience of her professional life.  Instead of handing out sentences, the judge showed interest in people’s lives. He remembered and asked about kids, congratulated people on being sober for extended periods and went through a troubleshooting process with people when they failed to pass drug tests, helping them find resources.

When the judge saw a graduate of drug court struggling to find employment, the judge remembered she’d been a dependable cashier even through her addiction struggles. He picked up the phone, called the head of a local grocery chain and asked them if she could get a job there. The woman, who had struggled with addiction for 15 years, was sent to see the manager for a job on the personal recommendation of the judge. Freeman-Wilson felt that demonstrated the judge’s great confidence not only in that graduate but also in the drug court program itself.

“I had to have a piece of that. I had to bring that back to Gary, Indiana,” Freeman-Wilson said.

Freeman-Wilson took a team to a training, and they caught the excitement. Four months later, in Sep. 1996, they had a drug court in Gary, Indiana.

Proponents of drug courts cite affordability and reduced recidivism rates.

“It costs about $96 per day to house an offender in the county jail and the addicted offender comes out still addicted and lacking in education or skills to change prior behavior,” an article about drug courts said on the Oregon Judicial Department website.

In contrast, it costs $9 a day to treat and educate drug offenders, according to the ODJ website. Studies across the country have found that drug court treatment plans reduce recidivism – when a person reoffends – but the amount by which recidivism is reduced can vary depending on the individual drug court. A 2011 study by Shannon M. Carry and Mark S. Walle on Oregon Drug Courts found an average of 23 percent reduction in the recidivism rates.

Freeman-Wilson and members of the audience discussed drawbacks to the drug court program. Freeman-Wilson noted that the drug court program wasn’t reaching many people who could use it, and she hoped for wider adoption of the program.

Anna C.K. Smith / The Torch
Mark Harris expresses his concerns about the limitations of the 12-step program in treating addiction after Karen Freeman-Wilson’s talk promoting drug court. Harris works at LCC as the Coordinator for Substance Abuse Prevention and has seen the the value of education in helping combat drug addiction.

Mark Harris, Lane’s Coordinator for Substance Abuse Prevention and an experienced addiction counselor, saw limitations within the 12-step programs that are a requirement for most drug courts.

“There’s lots of relapses because 12-step treatment doesn’t get to the root of sexual, racial, class trauma or veteran’s trauma,” Harris said.

Harris sees a long-term education component as the best aid to a lasting recovery. Freeman-Wilson responded by noting that the most successful drug courts included an educational component. She said that for some people, the community service requirement sparks an interest in education.

“The thing that allows us to ignore so many of the challenges we see in our country income inequality, racial inequality, racism, sexism, treatment of people who are differently-abled is the fact that we have determined that they have marginal value,” Freeman-Wilson said.

She encouraged placing greater value on people and trying to address the root of the issue for problems in the education, criminal justice, health care and immigration systems.

“In Drug Court we learn everyone is important. Everyone can contribute. Everyone is valuable,” Freeman-Wilson said.