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Drug Court Continues Its Success Story

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Fifteen former drug users joined the ranks of Los Angeles County drug court graduates Monday, triumphantly completing a program that is producing results far better than most of the criminal justice system when it comes to weaning users from their addictions.

The third graduating class in Santa Monica came as the county is marking “National Drug Court Week” to draw attention to a once-controversial program that is winning converts and producing notable statistics.

Most encouraging to its supporters is the low rate of recidivism among those who have completed the drug court’s supervised year of intense counseling and drug testing: Of those who have graduated, more than 80% have avoided any new contact with the law, and the number inches above 85% when relatively minor traffic offenses, such as driving without a license, are excluded.

Only 5% of those who have completed the local program have been arrested again on drug charges. Nationally, 60% of drug criminals are caught committing drug crimes again.

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The local success rate has won over admirers on both sides of the criminal justice system. On Monday, county Dist. Atty. Gil Garcetti and Los Angeles Public Defender Mike Judge--whose offices face off in court thousands of times a year--each praised the drug court at the Santa Monica graduation.

Garcetti, an early supporter of the program, told the group of graduates seated together in a jury box that even as a lifelong prosecutor, he believes that prison is not always the best response to crime.

“We know drug court works,” he said. “It’s the criminal justice system that has helped turn these lives around.”

In an interview, Garcetti noted that while some district attorneys do not favor drug court, preferring harder-line sentencing, he considers it both practical and effective. “Nearly everyone who enters prison a drug addict comes out of prison a drug addict,” he said.

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Judge echoed his prosecutorial counterpart’s praise for the program, paying tribute to the graduates for their hard work in the yearlong program.

“Isn’t redemption sweet?” he asked, drawing cheers from the graduates and their families.

To gain entry into the program, alleged drug criminals must have no history of violent felonies. They may, however, have a variety of criminal convictions, and Superior Court Judge Laurence D. Rubin, who supervises the Santa Monica drug court, remarked Monday that he had seen a few of the graduates over the years in his court.

Unlike conventional court, where dozens of offenders are evaluated and sentenced, drug court keeps constant monitoring on a relatively small group. Once accepted into the program, users are thrust into an intense regimen of counseling and are regularly drug-tested. Several of the graduates Monday had attended more than 400 group or individual counseling sessions in the past 365 days.

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There was a wide range of occupations and backgrounds. One woman described herself as a child of privilege; another was a child actress who began using drugs at 18. One graduate worked in a garage, one was a lawyer, another a cook. One was a mother who had been sober for 12 years until she relapsed.

Not all made it through the program without setbacks. Rubin said he had been forced to order confinement for two of the participants after they either missed or failed tests. Both rebounded, however, and had been clean for months by Monday’s graduation.

Completing the program is often wrenchingly difficult. One woman cried quietly as the judge described her separation from her 5-year-old daughter as she struggled for sobriety. As of Monday, she had been clean for nine months.

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To a person, graduate after graduate, along with their friends and families, agreed that the program had salvaged their lives when all hope seemed lost.

“It’s the only thing that saved our daughter,” said one woman in the audience, where she was joined by her husband and granddaughter.

Andrew Stansfield, who gave the judge copies of two pieces of writing he had composed as the end of the program neared, concluded the graduation with a speech to his classmates and friends. Struggling for a moment for words, he said the past 12 months had been “a long, hard year for me, but it’s also been a beautiful year.”

“You saved my life,” he said to the judge, court staff and even the prosecutor. “You really did.”

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