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Addicts Have a New Option: Join the Club

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Sounding more like a motivational speaker than a Municipal Court judge, Gregory H. Lewis looked around Department 101 in Orange County Superior Court one day this month, smiled and said to a room filled with about 100 people: “I like to see your faces! There’s a lot of energy flowing.”

This is no ordinary day in Lewis’ court. It’s the day he presides over the 321 Club, an experimental court program that seeks to rehabilitate addicts or alcoholics convicted of misdemeanors instead of sending them to jail.

“I don’t want people to fail,” Lewis said in a recent interview. “My theory is that they’ve had enough failure in life. I want them to lead a healthy, sober life. There is nothing better than to see people coming into court healthy and happy.”

Becoming a member of the 321 Club may keep offenders out of jail, but it is by no means an easy way out.

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To join, members must agree to plead guilty to the misdemeanor charge and are given the maximum sentence. The sentence is suspended and they are placed on informal probation with the following conditions: random drug testing, daily Alcoholic Anonymous or Narcotics Anonymous meetings and monthly court appearances before the judge. They must participate in the program for three years. If a member does not appear at the monthly meeting, probation is revoked and Lewis issues a warrant for the member’s arrest.

“It’s much easier to do the time than to accept the structure of the program,” said Public Defender Sue Green, one of the attorneys involved in the program. “The requirements are stringent.”

Prospective club members are evaluated for what Green calls “the right mind-set,” which means a wanting to change and making no excuses for their behavior.

The club is named after the department Lewis presided over when the group formed a year ago. Of the approximately 100 people who have participated in it, only five have been rearrested, Lewis said.

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Finding a job, drug testing, rehabilitation programs and even a haircut can be among the individual probation conditions. Violating probation can result in being sent to jail to serve the maximum sentence, which can be as long as three years.

“I blow this and I blow the rest of my life,” said 61-year-old Jerry, an Irvine resident who asked that his last name not be published. He has remained clean and sober for the past four months--the longest stretch of his life. He attributes this to the 321 Club.

When Jerry arrived in Lewis’ court about four months ago, he faced six months in jail for drunk driving. Also hanging over his head was a sentence of 25 years to life for possession of heroin.

“It’s gotten to a point now that I feel like I’m learning something,” he said. “I’m not just going because I have to go for court. There’s sort of a camaraderie there with the other people.”

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The monthly 321 Club sessions are a combination court appearance and AA meeting. There is a lot of laughter, there are tears, and there are occasional hugs. Sometimes friendships are born; other times, feelings are hurt.

At this month’s meeting, one young woman, named Sarah, tearfully admitted to drinking a beer at a party and expressed deep remorse. She was treated with compassion by other club members because of her honesty.

“She knew right when it happened that it was wrong and I’m proud that she conceded that,” a female member said to the group.

In contrast, those who make excuses for their behavior or try to deny that they have relapsed are often treated harshly by members of the club, who must decide whether someone who has relapsed should be able to remain a member.

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“To me, what this is really about is the group,” said public defender Green. Lewis “steps aside from his normal role and turns stuff over to the group. They care about the other members of the group and take care of each other. They have a lot of courage, in my opinion.”

Recently, a woman was taken to task by fellow members and the judge for drinking while on a trip to Laughlin to celebrate her birthday. She explained that she had been under extreme pressures.

“Once I started, I couldn’t stop,” she admitted.

Lewis admonished her for “rationalizing and justifying” the drinking. He ordered her to take the drug antabuse, which makes a person violently ill if alcohol is consumed.

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“I’m ordering this under a monitored situation,” Lewis said to the woman. “The reason I’m doing this is because I care about you.”

Others are eager to share their continued sobriety and latest accomplishments.

“I have 328 days sober!” said 24-year-old Silvia, who did a little dance and explained to the group that she was starting a new department store job and would soon be graduating from Bible college.

A handful of members who have shown stability and growth were selected as group leaders at the most recent meeting. Among them was 32-year-old Geoffrey Delgado, a self-employed accountant with drunk-driving convictions.

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“This has taught me to be responsible,” Delgado said. “I’m grateful to be in this program, to have been given the opportunity. It’s a second chance.”

While Lewis can be a stern disciplinarian, he is also a sympathetic listener. The judge has long been committed to trying to make a difference in the lives of drug offenders. In 1990, he helped to create “Choices,” an anti-drug film that he showed at local high schools.

Figuring that it costs the county about $2,000 a month to house someone in jail, Lewis estimates that the 321 Club could end up saving the county as much as $1.5 million a year. The program receives no special funding.

The 321 Club was born after a woman showed up in Lewis’ court on her second drunk-driving charge. She stood before the judge and said, “I’m a hopeless alcoholic.”

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Lewis said he was struck by what she said, and told her, “You may be an alcoholic, but you’re not hopeless.” He ordered her to join AA and to undergo counseling. She never completely quit drinking but she got a job, dumped her boyfriend and hasn’t returned to the court system.

Soon after, Lewis had a conversation with Green, who represented many of the drug and alcohol offenders being brought to Lewis’ court.

“I began to notice repetition of drug and alcohol-related crimes,” Lewis said. “One day, I said, ‘You know Sue, we ought to do something.’ ”

The 321 Club began with five women. They had drug and alcohol problems as well as problems with self-esteem. They were coming to court individually and Lewis decided they should be brought together as a group.

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“I’ve never seen anything like it,” said Green, who represents many of the members and is herself a recovering alcoholic. “My clients can come to court and be treated with compassion and respect. There are rewards for being honest and they are treated fairly. This is the thing as a public defender that I am proudest of.”

The 321 Club is separate from the county’s original drug court, started last year by Superior Court Judge David T. McEachen. That court is aimed at rehabilitating nonviolent felony drug possession offenders.

Other judges now refer offenders to the club. Each monthly meeting inside Lewis’ court is filled with regular and potential members.

For Lewis, the program must be juggled along with his busy court schedule. But he believes it is worth it.

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“You cannot turn your back on people who are asking for help,” he said. “We didn’t turn our backs and I’m very proud that we didn’t.”


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