Learning How To Live: Buncombe County Drug Court Program Can Be Tougher Than Prison

Apr 11, 2018

Sometimes, going to prison is the easy way out for those fighting addiction.  The difficult path is learning how to live.  The Buncombe County drug court program looks to teach that difficult path.

Every addiction story starts differently.  Bill Wallace tells his as he gives a tour of Clear Recovery, a halfway house he co-owns that overlooks New Leicester Highway.  Wallace played football at East Carolina University, and underwent two surgeries during his playing career there.  He was prescribed opioids following both.  “I really liked the pain medication.  I liked the way it made me feel.”

His prior drug use was just recreational Wallace says.  The opioids were different though, and years of reflection have allowed Wallace to realize why.  “It was because I had a void inside me.  My mother died when I was six years old.  And I never dealt with that for…20 years.  Never talked about it.  Just stuffed it inside.”

Between his introduction to opioids and where he sits now – Wallace went through Buncombe County drug court.  It’s an alternative justice program for those facing felony charges related to their addiction.  Many participants are at rock-bottom, and facing long jail sentences.  “I just remember for a whole week I walked around saying ‘I ain’t supposed to be here.  I don’t know why I’m here.’  Just basically being honest about my emotions and my thought process.  And then eventually I came around and said ‘Maybe I should just make the best of it.’”

It took Wallace 17 months to graduate drug court.  That length of time is typical says Tracie Bodford, the drug court program coordinator.  “They have to do an average of 4 hours a week of community service.  They have to engage in treatment.  They have to call in to our call-to-test system every night from midnight to 8 a.m. and they message will them if they have if they have to report to drug screen.  If they do they have to be here between 8 and 8:30.”

Buncombe County Superior Court Judge Alan Thornburg is the ruling judge of drug court.  He says each person who goes through it is treated as an individual, not a case number.  Like any situation where you get to know someone and what makes them tick, he says it takes time.  A long time.  “If they show up when they’re supposed to show up – whether that be to treatment or to test or supervision or to community service – that’s a victory.  We’re trying to change their way of life.  And a 90-day program is not always enough.”

Thornburg says the long-term behavior-changing approach is what makes drug court so tough for those who go through it.  “Well…you have to want this.  For some folks, the easy way out is take your punishment.  Do your time.”

Thornburg says that’s also largely been the mentality of the criminal justice system in the United States.  “We know from the numbers that more often than not if people take that route, they will come back into the system.”

The recidivism rate of drug court participants is much lower than the overall rate.  Thornburg touts many other benefits of the program too.  “(We’re) locking these folks up to the cost of the taxpayers of $30-40 thousand (per year).  It costs roughly $5-thousand to have them in this program.”

But beating addiction – and getting to graduate drug court – is rarely a straight line.  Relapses will keep a participant in the program additional months until they prove they won’t relapse again, reflecting an approach that sees addiction not as a moral failing but a disease according to Thornburg.   “If you look at it that way, it’s easier to understand when they have a relapse or don’t do everything perfectly.  That is not unusual and that is to be expected.”

Another part of the program is specifically tied to graduation day.  Each graduate must speak at the ceremony, held in a packed courtroom that often includes members of their families.  Those speeches are often heart-wrenching.  It certainly was for Bill Wallace when he graduated in May 2017.  “I was super scared before I got up there.  I was so nervous.  I never liked public speaking.  So of course it ended up being like a 25-minute speech.  I was up there and I was crying.  And it came out from the heart.  I think the best part of it was my dad being there.  Because my dad…he never gave up on me when there were times he probably should have.  I could never repay my dad back monetarily and he doesn’t have that many years left on earth.  I just didn’t want my dad to die knowing me as somebody who had so much potential but chose to throw it all away and was a junkie.”

Wallace says there were plenty of times during his 17-month drug court stint when it would have been easier to just go to prison.  But he didn’t want easy.  “I got to a point where I had no idea how to live life.  I was totally consumed with using drugs and finding ways to get drugs.  I had no idea…I couldn’t sit here and have this conversation with you.  I couldn’t talk to people.”

He can talk now - to people he’s helping navigate the roads he’s already traveled.