Page County drug court touts first graduates of program aimed at breaking cycle of addiction

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Drug court first grads
Joseph Matheney Jr., Amy Campbell and Robert Kevin Alger became the first graduates of the Page County Adult Drug Treatment Court on Monday, Dec. 12.

By Randy Arrington

LURAY, Dec. 12 — The conversations are all informal, yet formal; officially part of the process, but purposefully made comfortable by design. Each of the defendants sit and chat with a man in a robe, with a gavel, sitting a few feet higher than them, as if they were talking to a new friend whom they felt safe with sharing the special moments of their lives…and all the conversations start the same way.

“How are you today?”

“I’m good.”

“And what does good mean to you?”

It’s a pleasant and simple way to ease into a much deeper and meaningful discussion. An actual court proceeding that takes on a conversational tone and tackles issues of family relationships, employment searches, housing, finances, daily habits and the environment the defendant has been keeping. The conversational rhythm sets a tone not often heard in a courtroom — a tone of caring, nurturing and listening. Defendants drop their guard and seem to almost forget they are talking to a judge. Topics range from struggles with a job search to putting up Christmas decorations with their child.

The Page County Adult Drug Treatment Court is now in session. There are nine hearings on the docket, and three will make history. A crowd of more than 50 gather in the Page County Circuit Court to witness Amy Campbell, Joseph Matheney Jr. and Robert Kevin Alger become the first graduates of the new program.

“This is a big day for us here today,” Judge Clark Ritchie says after initially seating himself at the bench. “This is a really big deal for all of us. The first graduates…setting a benchmark in a new program for Page County attempting to deal with an old problem that plagues our community and those around us.”

Page County unveiled its drug court program in spring of 2021. Its aim is to divert low-level, non-violent drug offenders from incarceration through a cooperative effort by judges, law enforcement, prosecutors and mental health professionals. Today’s graduates have spent 488 days working their way through the five phases of the program.

“I want to acknowledge that among the participants of the program, everyone is here today…even those not supposed to be [with no hearing scheduled],” Judge Ritchie says. “I think that speaks to the camaraderie and friendships that develop in this program.”

Despite the fact that the judge controls the room, it’s far from a one-man show. After a brief opening discussion with the defendant, the judge calls on the program coordinator, the commonwealth attorney, a probation officer and the public defender’s office to render reports on the defendant’s progress.

Most of the stories are positive today, although some need to show improvement in certain areas.

“Nobody expects you to be perfect,” Judge Ritchie tells one defendant. “You are allowed to make mistakes as long as we are moving toward making progress.”

Drug courts have been operating in Virginia for about 25 years, but are still relatively new across the Shenandoah Valley. Since 2004, when the General Assembly passed the Drug Treatment Court Act, they have come under the supervision of the Virginia Supreme Court. Other localities in the region operating drug courts include Harrisonburg, Rockingham County, Augusta County, Staunton, Waynesboro and Winchester. James Madison University political science professors Amanda Teye and Lili Peaslee helped establish the drug court system in Page County by helping secure a $500,000 Bureau of Justice Assistance grant.

Before the three graduates receive certificates signed by the judge, team members who spent the last 15 months working with these individuals speak about them and thanked those who helped get the program up and running.

“This is a very interactive process. We work as a team. Our goal is to guide them toward success. All of our participants are working toward success,” program coordinator Holly Williams said. “They are changing their lives, and it changes in degrees…and it changes their families’ lives around them.”

Commonwealth’s Attorney Bryan Cave stated that “sometimes we feel limited in the tools we have available…this gives us another tool…it’s encouraging to see these individuals here today taking these tools and using them to their advantage, and we’ve seen tremendous progress.”

Former commonwealth attorney Ken Alger, now one of the newest judges in the 26th judicial district, helped launch the program in Page before sitting on the bench the last six months. The former prosecutor recalled “some people coming back into the court system over and over again, and it seemed there was nothing we could do about it…what these people needed was a chance.”

Judge Alger commended Judge Ritchie for being willing to participate in the process, as well as acknowledging a “phenominal team” that coordinates the program.

“I also want to say thanks to the participants. They give up a lot of privacy…and they didn’t know what they were getting into,” Judge Alger said. “This is a good program. You don’t [get] to skate by, you have to answer for your actions and be accountable for everything.”

The program was a “long time coming”, according to longtime probation officer Daniel Deavers. “I’ve done this a long time, and I still learned a lot from them. I had never really thought about much, or understood, addiction.”

“These individuals face a series of decisions that make or break their next decision…their next decision can put them in jail, their next decision can kill them, their next decision could break up their family…their next decision is probably more important than all the decisions most of you have made in a while,” Deavers said, “and that is the life of an addict.”

Josh, a buddy of graduate Robert Kevin Alger, spoke on his friend’s behalf, stating he is “one of my best friends…but I’m not sure that would be possible without drug court.” Josh, who has been drug free for 10 years, didn’t want to be around Kevin if he was still using. Now, it’s not an issue, as Josh spoke of the good qualities the program had instilled in Kevin to make him a better friend, as well as Kevin’s 100-percent commitment to his own success.

In order for each participant of the drug court program to graduate, they must complete all five phases. All requirements of one phase must be completed before participants can move on to the next phase. Each phase requires independent effort by the participant, but involves intense supervision.

Much like higher test scores follow schools with the lowest student-to-teacher ratio, much of the drug court’s success is due to individual attention through intense one-on-one interviews, as well as a coordinated team effort by a collection of professionals aimed at bettering one individual at a time.

On Monday in circuit court, each of the graduates went through a hearing where their sentences were reduced as a result of their completion of the drug court’s five-phase process. Previous charges related to drug possession or parole violations, depending on the case, still remain. However, Judge Ritchie did suspend all charges based on the successful completion of one year of supervised probation.

After receiving her “diploma,” Amy thanked the judge and the team for “teaching me how to handle my triggers and how to handle my addiction. I didn’t think it would be possible…and I’m excited to continue this journey.”

“You made some hard decisions about how you are going to live your life…and you made the right choices,” Judge Ritchie replied.

“Before drug court, I didn’t feel like I had much of a future…going down the wrong path for 16 years of my life, and then wanting to change for the last four years,” graduate Joseph told those in the courtroom. “You have to commit yourself to change…this showed me how to set goals and accomplish them…it helped me change my life.”

“Thank God for my life and every person involved in my recovery,” graduate Kevin said. “It changed my way of thinking…each day it was easier and easier to say ‘no’…and each time I felt better about saying ‘no’.”

As the ceremony and proceedings came to an end, Judge Ritchie stated, “I think all of the agencies involved deserve a lot of credit for participating…all of these agencies are already over extended, but they all committed resources to give it a chance…without their willingness to commit from these agencies, it would not have happened.”

Judge Ritchie recalled his time as a parole officer about two decades ago. He remembered the lack of resources and despite their best efforts, the “revolving door of individuals with multiple offenses back on our case numbers…relapses…every relapse in their lives caused issues that made them want to use more…which caused relapses that made them want to use more…and on, and on.”

“This court doesn’t work like a regular docket. Our interest level is much more intense,” he added. “This program is not for every defendant…as much as we would like it to be…it doesn’t work for everyone. You have to go all in. But it’s not just about checking the boxes. You can’t do the minimum and graduate…sometimes that means somebody has to hit rock bottom.”

“They depend on each other, and they learn to lean on each other and they don’t want to let each other down,” the judge continued. “Participants sometimes go to jail. There are consequences. They are also accountable to their family…family relations getting better is a great motivator.”

The genuinely caring and conversational judge ended with the question of, how do you measure success? While he noted that graduation, or completing the program, was a sign of success for the participant and the program, the examples he evoked portrayed the every day successes that many may look past — for one graduate “being available when his family needed him in a crisis situation…to be able to help when he was needed” was a measure of success; for another it was getting an ID, getting a job, getting a truck (and the financing for it) and making the payments marked success; and for another participant of the program, the judge measured success in a simple “hello”.

“I was sitting at a light on Main Street and I hear this tapping on my window…and it’s Amy, just to say ‘Hi’,” Judge Ritchie recalled. “Before this [program]…you would have avoided me like the plague.”

“These are ways you measure success in this program.”

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