It is the day before Thanksgiving and a team of well-dressed men and women are seated at a table with U.S. District Judge Tim DeGiusti on the fourth floor of the federal courthouse in Oklahoma City.
The gathering includes a prosecutor, a public defender, a probation officer and a drug and alcohol counselor charged with administering CARE Court, the federal court's version of drug court.
Now in its fourth year, the voluntary program is an alternative to prison for those who have served their time but violated the terms of their supervised release by using drugs and alcohol.
Participants are subjected to group and individual counseling and weekly drug testing for a year or longer, depending on their level of commitment and the number of setbacks along the way.
“It's a much more intense level of supervision,” DeGiusti said.
Complete the program and the presiding judge will knock a year off supervised release.
“That's a big goal for a lot of people, to get probation off their back,” said Tony Lacy, an assistant federal public defender.
Twice a month, DeGiusti and the others meet to decide whether the program's participants are keeping up with their end of the bargain.
Fail a drug test and you'll spend a day in jail. Skip a counseling appointment and you'll get extra days of community service added to your punishment. Continue to slip up and you'll likely be sent back to prison.
On this day, no sanctions are handed out for failed drug tests or missed counseling appointments. Encouragement is handed out for five program members, two of whom are about to transition to the next level.
One participant, whose name was not disclosed, told the judge he has been off pain medication for 12 days and feels good about the direction he is heading, despite a level of anxiety associated with the detoxification process.
“It's not going to be easy, but meaningful things are not easy,” DeGiusti told him.
Another program participant shared that she has been approved for a sober-living facility. The woman said she has been clean and sober for nearly four years and is looking forward to being reunited with her children.
“I am totally impressed,” said counselor Linda Williams, a recovering addict who warned the woman to protect herself from bad influences and old behavior.
Slips are not uncommon and don't signal a return to prison provided the offender is honest with the CARE Court team about a relapse.
The urge to use heroin was so strong for one recent graduate of the program that she failed drug tests and missed counseling appointments despite the threat of further incarceration for violating the conditions of her release from prison.
“I was a train wreck,” said the 23-year-old woman, who requested anonymity. “I went to court and I knew I was going back to prison.”
But the judge at the time changed her mind after the woman's mother told him her daughter was really trying after what would be the last of her drug relapses.
The woman, who spent eight months in a federal prison in Texas for harboring a fugitive, got a year knocked off her probation by completing the program.
She said she has been clean for nearly two years.
“If it wasn't for the CARE team, I don't know where I would be today,” she said. “They are the best support team that you could ever have.”
The June graduate credits Williams and probation officer Jeff Yowell, a CARE Court team member, for her success.
“They gave me a new direction,” she said. “They gave me positive reinforcement. They were like family to me.”
Agreeing to participate in the program, though, means a level of commitment many are not ready for.
“A year off supervised release is a big deal for us and for the court and we don't give that out lightly,” U.S. Attorney Sanford C. Coats said. “To earn that requires a significant achievement over a long period of time.”
Saby Rubio spent 56 months of a 63-month term in a Texas prison for a drug-possession conviction. While on supervised probation after her release she was arrested for driving under the influence of alcohol.
“I thought I didn't have a problem with alcohol but I was wrong,” said Rubio, 42, a 2010 graduate of CARE Court.
She completed the program in one year and says she keeps in touch with Williams and visits CARE court from time to time.
“It's got a lot of structure, and a lot of demands, but that's what I needed after being incarcerated for five years,” she said. “I had to learn how to live in the free world again.”
The driving force behind CARE (Court Assisted Recovery Effort) Court is former U.S. Magistrate Judge Valerie Couch, now dean of the Oklahoma City University School of Law.
“As a court we saw that substance abuse and addiction were really major contributors to the recidivism rate,” Couch said. “People would be coming out of federal prison and re-entering the community still dealing with serious substance abuse issues and violating the terms of their release.”
The program costs the U.S. District Court in Oklahoma City very little to administer — roughly $1,000 a year — because the funding for counseling and testing services are included in the U.S. Probation Office budget.
It is a small price to pay compared to incarceration, which costs about $30,000 per person for a year, authorities said.
“Really, it's not a great use of our federal resources to send someone back to federal prison because they're addicted to illegal substances or alcohol,” Coats said. “We've got to have some alternatives for these folks. We need a stringent plan to get them off drugs, to get them assimilated back in society, to get them a job, education if they need it.”
It's not going to be easy, but meaningful things are not easy.”
U.S. District Judge Tim DeGiusti,