By Michelle Wagner | Outer Banks Voice on September 27, 2022
Since Dare County Recovery Court first convened at the Dare County Justice Center in May 2019, it has steadily grown to include more participants, more success stories, and more funding.
At its core, the three-year-old program allows some individuals with substance abuse problems who are charged with or convicted of non-violent crimes to avoid incarceration if they follow a drug treatment, testing and monitoring program.
“We’ve grown a lot,” Recovery Court Coordinator Emily Urch told the Voice during a recent interview. “We’ve had some stagnant periods because the courts were closed during the pandemic, and we get most of our [participants] through Superior Court. But once we opened back up, we had a lot of people…From 2020 to 2021, we went from about nineteen people to forty-two.”
Urch said that in January 2021, there were 18 participants and by the end of December, there were 36. That same year, the court had 11 successful graduates and so far in 2022, there have been 12 successful graduates.
Dare County Recovery Court, one of about 50 in the state, was first funded in 2019 by the county commissioners in an effort to treat the growing opioid crisis locally. Most recently, the county earmarked $100,000 of the 2022-23 monies it received from the national opioid litigation settlement to fund an additional probation officer for the recovery court program. Currently, there is one probation officer handling the caseload.
Prospective participants are referred to the court by their attorneys or probation officers and must be approved by the Recovery Court Board of Directors, made up of mental health providers, social workers, as well as law enforcement and court representatives.
Candidates for the program are those who have documented substance abuse problems who have found themselves in the criminal justice system because of their dependence on certain drugs, but who are not drug dealers or violent offenders.
Recovery court, Urch explains, provides an alternative for participants who are facing harsher sentences for non-violent felonies by providing treatment plans that include either intensive inpatient or outpatient treatment, mental health support as well as regular drug screening, court appearances and check-ins with a probation officer.
Ultimately, graduating from the program entails achieving a substantial period of sobriety, with a minimum of at least a year, successful discharge from their treatment provider, stable substance-free housing, employment and no probation violations.
Recovery court meets roughly once a month with Superior Court Judge Jerry Tillett presiding. During that court session, participants report to Judge Tillett on their progress.
“After leaving a court session, the whole [Recovery Court team] feels really good about what’s happening,” Urch asserts. “You get to hear from people themselves about what they are doing, how they are doing and how they are growing. And they are enjoying it and proud of their accomplishments.
While some recovery courts only take misdemeanor cases, Urch said that Dare’s Recovery Court primarily has participants that have been charged or convicted of felonies.
“The harder drugs are always going to be a felony and those are the people who really need help… and going through the program is a diversion away from prison or jail, so these are people who would have normally had active sentences,” she said.
Urch said that the recovery court works closely with the sheriff’s office as well as the county health department that assists with efforts to get participants into treatment centers and identifying funding, grants and donations to help mitigate the cost of treatment.
With time and success, monitoring and supervision lessen until participants satisfy their probation and recovery court requirements. As they move through the program, participants receive incentives and rewards, such as gift cards donated by local businesses or having their curfew lifted.
Unfortunately, not all participants are successful. In 2021, there were four unsuccessful candidates and so far in 2022, there have been eight. In all of those cases, the participant has committed a new crime and had their probation revoked.
But overall, Urch said, the program has been “very, very rewarding and we’ve had a lot of really great success stories – people who are now part of the recovery community and work with me in helping others.”