Saturday, May 17, 2014

by Maniko Barthelemy

Jefferson Parish Celebrates Alternative Drug Sentencing Program

For a brief moment, judges, ex-offenders, parole officers and politicians were all smiles, happy to be around each other. “This is about saving people’s lives, about making sure no one gets left behind and everyone has an opportunity to be a productive member of society,” said Jefferson Parish President, John Young.

Young and nearly 60 people enjoyed a Drug Court Rally, May 15, outside of the Jefferson Parish Juvenile Court Center. The program was one of many around the country celebrating “National Drug Court Month.”
With the emotional testimonies from graduates of the parish’s program and praise from politicians it felt like a joyful church service. One Gretna teenager ecstatic about being included in the festivities and determined to continue his clean and sober road got a standing ovation. “I turned to God and begged him to show me the way, said Philip Long.”

Long, 17, landed in front of a judge in 2013, after his addiction to painkillers spiraled out of control. Instead of being sentenced to time behind bars, Long got a break and slowly regained control of his life. He credits the 12-month court ordered strict intervention with his renewed sense of self-respect and ambition. “I’ve written songs and I think I want to be a journalist,’ said Long.

Court mandated drug treatment is rigorous. It includes frequent drug testing, sobriety meetings, unannounced visits from probation officers and family therapy. For adults, the intervention program is 18 months.

A Gretna woman told the crowd the drug court sentence scared her straight. “I wasn’t fit for jail and I knew I wouldn’t last,” said 39-year-old Natalie Parfait. For nearly 10 years, Parfait bounced between marijuana and heroin, neglecting her family. In 2011, her fast world and drug addiction collided, with tough love from a judge. “I was facing two to 28 years in prison and I was pregnant,” said Parfait. “I was standing there praying for a chance.” Today, she is healthy and happy to spend her days as a personal fitness trainer and her nights being a mother to her children.

Parfait and Long are two of the 500 Jefferson Parish Drug Court success stories over the parish’s 17 years of alternatively dealing with people who commit nonviolent crimes to support their habits. The adult system was put in place in 1997, followed by the juvenile program in 1998. Initially, grants and private donations kept the system afloat. Today, the Louisiana Supreme Court funds the program through earmarked revenue.

The rally marked the 25th anniversary of National Drug Court Month. The concept of drug courts was launched in Miami in 1989 to ease crowded criminal courtrooms and prisons. Every state has a drug court program. Experts point to the cost savings and success as reasons why it’s a viable solution. Critics see it as going soft on crime.