Alexandria, VA

Richard Thomas has been sober for 50 days, and that’s his longest stretch away from PCP and marijuana since he was 14 years old.

The 42-year-old Alexandria native has been arrested more than 10 times over the course of his life. A 1995 graduate of T.C. Williams High School, Thomas has seen his life repeatedly go down the drain through intense struggles with homelessness, addiction and depression. But the Alexandria Treatment Court has given him a new lease on life.

“I don’t have to look behind my back anymore. It’s a second chance,” said Thomas, who has a new job as a dishwasher in Alexandria, and asked that his real name be withheld. “The Treatment Court has allowed me to keep myself accountable and be consistent and honest. The judge says the most important thing is to be honest.”

The Treatment Court, which launched in August and meets every Thursday, is still in its pilot phase. The court is an alternative to jail for individuals with substance abuse issues, and most participants have been to jail multiple times.

The Fairfax County and Arlington County drug courts are grant funded, and it has taken two years for the City of Alexandria to get to this point. There is no additional funding for the program and there are only eight participants — staff for the Commonwealth’s Attorney for Alexandria are seeking grant funding to accommodate up to 25 individuals and hire support staff.

Assistant Commonwealth’s Attorney David Lord is the Treatment Court coordinator, and said that the road to recovery is never easy.

“With no slip-ups, the entire program should take 14 months, but we understand that relapsing is part of the recovery process,” Lord said. “It should take 18 months to two years for most individuals to complete the program.”

Participants can still be kicked out of the program. On a recent Thursday, Judge Lisa Kemler had a tough decision to make. One of the drug court participants, who is currently serving time in the Alexandria jail, assaulted a Sheriff’s deputy. Of the eight taking part in the program, two have assaulted law enforcement officers, who in turn still recommended that they be included.

“You were given a lot of chances. How many chances do you think we should give you?” Kemler asked the man, who stood in a gray jail jumpsuit and handcuffs.

“One more. One more. Would you even just consider it?” he responded. “I still want to participate in the Treatment Court… I think the program is working for me. I just had a few slip-ups.”

Kemler ended up giving the man another chance, but if he does not cooperate then her decision will be easy.

“It’s not going to be exactly what you want, because nothing in life is exactly what you want,” Kemler said. “If you fail to hold up your end of the bargain you will face termination [from the program].”

There were nine opioid-related deaths and at least 50 non-fatal overdoses in Alexandria in 2017. That same year, there were 1,019 drug-related criminal offenses, which was an increase of 37% from the previous year. There were also 96 probation violations filed in Alexandria in between 2016 and 2017 due to participants failing drug tests.

Treatment Court participants have agreed to an increased level of supervision by a probation officer and weekly court appearances. They must participate in multiple therapy sessions every week and take frequent drug tests. The first phase of the five-phase program lasts for a minimum of 60 days, and participants must adhere to a 9 p.m. curfew. Each subsequent phase allows participants to stay out one hour later in the evenings.

Thomas, who has three children and another on the way, said that he has not had a single urge to do drugs again.

“I haven’t had any cravings. It hasn’t been hard at all because of what my consequences would be if I didn’t participate in the program,” he said. “If I get incarcerated again, the chances of my kids being raised without me is devastating.”

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