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Indiana judge says her drug court is bringing positive effects

ANDERSON, Ind. (WISH) — Indiana’s chief justice wants every county to adopt a drug court to help people get treatment and stay out of prison.

Madison County Drug Court started in Anderson in 2000 and, after 23 years, just over 1,300 people have participated. It’s the type of program that Indiana Supreme Court Chief Justice Loretta Rush wants to see statewide.

Madison Court Circuit Court Judge Angela Sims said, “I do think that the fact that we do have these resources in our community makes our community better.”

Sims he is one of 58 problem-solving judges in the state. Her court in Anderson presides over the county’s adult drug court, mental health court, and reentry court. The goal of the three courts is to address the root causes of crime, such as addiction, and encourage people standing in front of her court to make positive changes in their lives.

“Certainly when you’re dealing with those that come into the criminal justice system, it’s a very multifaceted problem you’re dealing with. Certainly, the drug use is kind of the gateway that gets you here, but, with what we learn about these people and those are typically addicted to drugs, again they have … their lives are kind of … live in shambles. … It’s chaotic on lots of levels, with employment, with education, with their social economic status, depending on those things. Their family unit is usually destroyed or in disrepair, and so we really work in a very holistic approach to these people. I often say in court to people that, ‘Well, judge. I’ve been sober for six months. I’ve been sober for a year,’ and I often look at them and say, you know, being sober by the easiest thing you will do in this program.” 

Who gets into drug court programs and how are they chosen was among I-Team 8’s questions a few weeks ago during an interview with Rush. She would like to see these courts expanded in Indiana to every county, as she says, to eliminate a justice-by-geography anomaly that disadvantages drug offenders depending on whether the county they are arrested has a drug court.  

Rush said, “This is what we are looking at, you know, what are the interventions in the crisis interventions. It doesn’t just start deep end. Usually, have touched that person a couple of times before, so getting that diagnosis of substance use disorder up front, it could be on a first time DUI case, and then making sure that what you order as a court are things that actually work, and we now know is evidence-based and works. So, I guess I want to say, it’s not always the rock-bottom person. You always say, ‘When they hit bottom, they’ll come up.’ I cannot tell you the parents that would come to court, into my courtroom, and say, ‘I couldn’t wait for my kid to get arrested so I could get them so help.’ We need to make the help available for those family members prior to the fall.”

Every drug court in Indiana holds a graduation for people who successfully complete the program. Many of these programs take up to two years or longer to complete. Everyone in the Madison County Drug Court program is randomly drug tested at least twice a week. In 2022, out of 6,000 drug tests, only 1% tested positive for drugs. Participants have to attend hundreds of counseling session, maintain a job, and meet with the judge at least 30 times to discuss their progress.

“It’s needing all the other pieces put together to ensure that sobriety lasts and recovery last well beyond the program, and that’s certainly our ultimate goal is that they don’t recidivize. They do not come back to the system, and they move on and they live good, productive lives in our community. So, I do think that the fact that we have these resources in our community makes our community better, and sometimes that’s hard to see because, again, we like to focus on the negative and those that don’t make it, and the tragedies that do occur in the community. But, I can equally sit down and point to, you know, a lot of people that have been successful not only in the program, but have continued to maintain success and contribute in a very positive way to our community, and so that’s important. I think the other thing we have learned throughout the process, even those that do not successfully complete the program, they have gained and garnered certain skills and tools while they’ve been here, but still allow them to build upon that even if they’re outside of the program, and some of them going to be very successful, even though they didn’t successfully complete the program.”

How does the programs’ success get measured? Numbers tell one side of the story. According to data collected from Sims’ court from 2015 to 2021, graduates of the problem-solving court program had recidivism rates of less than 20%, which is half of the national averages.  

“And if we can provide these services that keep them out of the system, keep them from committing crime again, the ripple effect of that is probably, it’s hard even to quantify when someone is restored back to sobriety and recovery. It’s just not that one person. It’s that person’s, maybe, even parents their children, their children’s children. If we’re able to restore those things and break that cycle, I see that the positive effects really, again, are pretty unquantifiable.”

Funding for problem-solving courts remains an issue. The General Assembly didn’t add any additional funding in the state budget that was just passed.