Dalton State Students Get Up-Close Look At Law Enforcement Real World Through Drug Court Sessions

Monday, September 14, 2020 - by Mitch Talley
Lisa O’Neal of the Conasauga Drug Court team takes a photo of Storey, a graduate of the program, during a recent court session conducted by Judge Jim Wilbanks (background). He and others who have completed Drug Court, will be honored on Sept. 24 during a graduation ceremony at Edwards Park.
Lisa O’Neal of the Conasauga Drug Court team takes a photo of Storey, a graduate of the program, during a recent court session conducted by Judge Jim Wilbanks (background). He and others who have completed Drug Court, will be honored on Sept. 24 during a graduation ceremony at Edwards Park.
- photo by Mitch Talley

Chandler Kinser wants to work in Homeland Security. Lupita Rodriguez is interested in Juvenile Probation. Being a detective is Jose Cedano’s dream. And Ariel Sanford would like to start out as a crime scene investigator and work her way up to the FBI.

Though their career paths may be different, these four Dalton State College students recently received an up-close look at how they could all end up working together someday in the real world of law and order.

As part of Dr. Natalie Johnson’s Advanced Criminological Theory course, the students first watched as team members discussed Drug Court participants during their weekly staff meeting in the Juror Assembly Room at the Whitfield County Courthouse. Then it was a short walk over to Courtroom 3, where Judge Jim Wilbanks presided over his weekly Drug Court session.

“This is one of the highest level courses our students can take,” Dr. Johnson explained. “They’re learning about how theory informs social policy, so what they’re doing here today is seeing policy in action. We know a lot of times addiction starts from trauma, but how are we going to help people rather than just send them to prison? What other ways can we help them? And that’s what these students are here to learn about and see first and foremost. Then in the courtroom, we can see how Drug Court operates, looking at how it gives people a second chance.”

During the staff meetings held each Thursday morning at 8 a.m., members of the Drug Court team talk candidly about participants and possible participants with other members of the judicial system.

These staff meetings, Judge Wilbanks tells the students, are “just a very dynamic mixture of community resources that are part of the Drug Court team.”

“It’s a pretty amazing process,” he says. “I’ve got the district attorney’s office at the table, state probation at the table, a Dalton detective at the table, the public defender’s office at the table…. So I’ve got all these people coming together who typically are on opposite sides of the law, but for this purpose, they’re all working together trying to help people that are in addiction, which is the goal.”

Pandemic hasn’t stopped Drug Court

The pandemic may have reduced the number of active participants in the program, but Judge Wilbanks points out that they’ve still managed to hold two graduation ceremonies since March, where people who have completed the stringent requirements for the program were honored for their two or more years of work. One graduation was by Zoom, the other a combination of Zoom and social distancing and masks in the large meeting room at Edwards Park.

At this meeting in August, a young woman who just delivered a baby a few days earlier is being considered by the staff to enter the program. Normally, participants are housed in shelters to remove  them from the environment that often facilitates their addiction, but because the women’s shelter at Providence Ministries is still being renovated, the staff struggles to find a place for the woman and her baby before learning late in the meeting that they may be able to stay in transitional housing at the Salvation Army.

Judge Wilbanks also hears updates from the staff about other participants, including how each of them is progressing, and later that morning, in the Drug Court session, he’ll use that information to encourage them along the way. He smiles when he hears that one man in particular has successfully completed the program after 51 months (normally it takes 24 months, though the time varies from person to person) and will be graduating with a few others on Sept. 24 during a ceremony at Edwards Park.

Another woman draws praise from staff member Lisa O’Neal. “She’s opening up and is in such a different place mentally, physically, and spiritually,” Ms. O’Neal explains. “It’s like a light bulb has come on. Wait till you see her today! She looks alive now.”

Judge Wilbanks tells the students that sometimes such a change is like a flip of a switch. “It can be that sudden,” he says, “and as black and white as me going and turning these lights off and on. It’s physical – we can see it in the way they look, we can see it in the way they present themselves, we can see it in the way they talk.”

This particular participant has been “a real challenge,” the judge says, “and I had to send her off because of sanction issues (to RSAT, Regional Substance Abuse Treatment, where participants receive intensive treatment behind bars).”

‘We’ve got to work on our families’

Hearing about progress like this now, Judge Wilbanks says, “is the part of the program that I love, and I think everybody loves, too, because if we were to place bets, probably half of us would say they’ll never make it, and the other half would say we hope and pray they will. Then as we get a few months into the program, we see them transitioning, see them growing, see them changing in a very positive way, and we look at each other and go, wow … wow.

"It’s quite an amazing feat, and it’s the part I really love because most of our folks really make a change in their lives and not only that, they make a change in their spouse’s life, if they’re married, or their significant other, certainly their children. And if you want to change this community, if you want to change this state and this country, we need to put families back together. I’ve said several times, the dysfunction and the breakup of our families is the core cause of our societal issues, so we’ve got to work on our families.”

This young woman had actually asked to be terminated from the program at one point, struggling to meet the expectations, but the judge and his team refused.

“We told her we care too much,” Ms. O’Neal says.  “We’re not gonna let you go down that path. She was a hard case; she had literally given up. But now that she sees we actually care, she’s texting us now  - ‘you guys really care, it’s not just your job.’ And it’s been awesome to see her transition to where she is right now.”

Unfortunately, such a storybook ending doesn’t always happen.

“We’ve got three people that have fled,” Judge Wilbanks explains to the students a few minutes later. “They’ve absconded and for whatever reason have decided they’ve had enough of us in recovery, so they have warrants out for their arrests. They will be arrested and will be back in court, and a decision will be made at that time whether or not they stay in the program.”

Drug Court is often the only thing standing between an addict and a trip to prison. If a staff evaluation determines a person is a good fit for the program, he or she receives an invitation to join instead of serving time in prison. However, Judge Wilbanks has often pointed out that being in Drug Court will probably be the hardest thing the participants will ever do, and if they fail to live up to their end of the legal agreement, they can wind up back in prison to serve the remainder of their sentence.

At first, participants have to appear weekly to report on their progress before Judge Wilbanks, who says he can often see a noticeable difference in their demeanor as they pass through the five phases of the program.

‘Not a typical role of a judge’

“As far as my responsibilities as a judge,” he says, “I need to engage these people for at least three minutes. The concept is they don’t care how much I know until they know how much I care. Basically the concept is that I engage them in conversation, make eye contact, have a conversation with them about their recovery, their progress, their family, their lives. They understand my role is not a typical role of a judge. My role is to support them and help them grow in recovery successfully, whereas a judge’s role in a typical courtroom setting in most cases is just to decide how long I’m going to put them in jail or on probation. So this is a very different role.”

As the participants progress through their recovery and reach the higher phases of the program, “then we require less of them, and we step down the intensiveness of the program,” Judge Wilbanks said. “We step down the personal appearances in front of me (to monthly by Phase 5). Drug Court is all about personal accountability – the structural part of that personal accountability is they have to show up and engage me and catch up with me as to what’s going on with them.”

It’s not always the Drug Court staff that makes a difference, though. Often, the participants themselves bond together and offer support during what can be very trying times.

On this day, Ms. Lawson points to the case of a young man who is brand new to the program. “Today is his first time coming before the judge in the program in street clothes,” she explains. “When he pled in last week, the guys pooled their money and bought him a phone. They took him out and got him something to eat … said, hey, you need some clothes, got him an outfit. They’ll make sure today when he walks into court, he’s got a button-down and tie on. They’ll make sure he’s prepared for that, that he knows what he’s doing. They just kinda take him under their wings and make sure he’s okay.”

That kind of emotional support is often new to addicts. “In the conversation I had with this young man, he was tear-driven talking about how he couldn’t believe how willing to help him, everyone is,” Ms. Lawson said. “I told him, yeah, you get to where they’re at, you’re gonna do the same thing for someone else, brand new, coming in not knowing what to expect next.

“So it’s just kinda paying it forward. In recovery, one of the sayings is you can’t keep what you have unless you give it away. That’s their thinking, that if I’m gonna keep my gratitude, I gotta give away gratitude. If I’m gonna keep my sobriety, I gotta help someone else, so it’s not just about me getting to the front of the line, but dragging everybody else with me on my way there.”

‘I am my brother’s keeper’

Ms. Lawson says she tries to stress to the participants that “I am my brother’s keeper – I am responsible for the guy sitting next to me, and if he’s successful, then I’m successful. They build friendships, but they also build a brotherhood. They become like brothers and family. Like if they become roommates, we have guys that have gone through this whole program, even after the program, they stay roommates and friends and become part of one another’s families. They’re uncles to their kids. It’s a pretty awesome process to watch for us, too.”

Seeing a person complete the program and turn their lives around is a pretty awesome process, too.

Take the story, literally, of a young man named Storey, who was honored during the Drug Court session on this day and received a temporary diploma in advance of his actual graduation ceremony on Sept. 24.

“I came into this program fearing the consequences of the life that I was living,” he told Judge Wilbanks. “But for years I was too afraid of dealing with my baggage and find out who I really am to even think about trying recovery. I bucked the rules in this program. I used substances for over a  year. I went to RSAT and still had no intention of changing. I wanted to do the bare minimum and handle my problems my way.”

Finally, after going to PDC, “it flipped my world upside down,” Storey said. “I took a long hard look in the mirror and saw the monster I had become after 14 years of fighting the system, fighting change, and fighting the rules. For the first time in my life, I saw how wrong I really was. Coming back from PDC, I still had a bad attitude, and I still carried all the hurt that I carried my entire life. Don’t get me wrong. I still hurt, but every day’s a little better than the last.”

He thanked Judge Wilbanks and the Drug Court staff, his friends, and his sponsor for their help in his recovery. “It’s because of this program and all the people involved that I pushed myself every day to be the best father, husband, son, grandson, employee that I could be. It’s because of this program that I now know there’s no limit to what I can do with this life. Addiction no longer defines me, it’s just a trait that I live with.”

Judge Wilbanks admitted it’s been a “bumpy road” for Storey, “but you’re still here, not because of me making you be here per se, but it’s because you finally made a decision - look, I can do this, and I want to do this, and I am gonna do this. And you did it. I will tell you, Storey, that it’s been a journey for you, it’s been a journey for us and for me. I have seen you mature and become a very positive young man and the father that you are. So thank you for that. Everyone knows that you wouldn’t be here if you didn’t want to be here. You are where you are because of your hard work, and we’re just happy to have been a small part of it.”

Multiple violator terminated but still has hope

Sometimes, though, the story isn’t so happy.

On this day, the judge has the unenviable task of revoking one participant’s probation and sending him back to prison for two years (with more than 17 years of probation hanging over his head), though even at that, Judge Wilbanks was still offering hope for the young man to turn his life around.

He came before the judge with 16 prior violations in Drug Court – fired from job, relapsed, quit job, no-contact violation, oversleeping and disrespectful to staff and not following directives, kicked out of Providence, not following staff directives, missed drug screening, overslept, missed drug screening, not following program directives two times, violated home confinement order, late to work while on a do-or-die contract with this court, and not following program directives three times.

“My feeling is I’ve listened to your attorney and I want to believe what she says about your desire to get through your prison sentence, get out on probation, and do the right thing,” Judge Wilbanks says to the young man, “and I certainly want you to, too. I feel like I’m gonna have you for 17 years, and I’ve got plenty of time to revoke your first offender status in the future, should you put me in that position again. I hope that’s not the position you put me in. I am going to give you another opportunity to maintain your first offender status, which means you can get through this not being a convicted felon and do what your lawyer has expressed so eloquently on your behalf of having a future. That’s my goal, that’s my wish, that’s my prayer for you at this point.

“There’s still opportunity, and that’s what I’m trying to make sure you understand,” the judge adds. “You still have opportunity; you still have a reason to be successful on this probation. If you choose not to, I’ve got plenty of time to revoke it and resentence you, and trust me, I will. I try not to make the same mistake twice. I’ve given you multiple opportunities, and I’m giving you another one, even as I sentence you to 17-plus years, I’m giving you another one. I wish you the best and I trust you’re going to make the best out of the circumstances you’ve gotten yourself into. I would be one of your biggest fans to hear about a graduation and a profession that you decide to get into. Good luck, sir.”

Seeing that sentence handed down was an emotional moment for the Dalton State students to witness, Mr. Cedano said. “All the other participants, you got the feeling that they were making some sort of progress, but then we see one of them going back a few steps,” he said. “That was powerful.”

Watching somebody’s freedom being taken away like that is never easy, Dr. Johnson said. “Sometimes it’s deserved,” she said, “but it’s never easy, so I don’t envy the judge’s position.”

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