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.
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It's not going to be easy, but meaningful things are not easy.”
U.S. District Judge Tim DeGiusti,