Judge William J. Watson was skeptical of drug courts when he first came to Lockport City Court in 2000. After all, he was the top drug prosecutor in Niagara County prior to becoming a judge.
“I said no when I first came over here,” he said, adding that at the time, he viewed drug courts as “some liberal judge” letting people off easy.
Now every Tuesday morning at 9:30 a.m. in Lockport City Court, Watson plays host to a variety of drug and alcohol offenders who are looking for a second, and sometimes third chance. Inquisitive and kind, Watson probes the addicts in front of him with the disposition of a caring but stern father, asking each individual before him what they have to tell him.
The rules are fairly simple. Be honest, and follow the plan that has been laid out for you by a multi-person chemical dependency treatment team. Lateness and lies are not tolerated, no matter the excuse. Sanctions range from verbal warnings to jail time.
On this Tuesday morning, a younger woman who appears to be in her 20s is late to court, and has possibly used drugs without letting the court know. Both are sanctionable under Watson’s rules, and she’s quickly put in handcuffs and shackles by the sheriff’s deputies on duty in plain view of the nearly full court room. It’s a stark reminder to everyone else that the rules matter.
Such is life in Watson’s Drug Court. Those who play by the rules get a second chance to redeem themselves, and those who don’t usually end up in jail.
“It’s basically a system of immediate sanctions and rewards to retrain an individual to relive their life without being afflicted by their disease of addiction,” he said.
Participants in the drug court have criminal charges pending which are put on hold while they go through the drug court program. If they are successful and graduate, the charges may be reduced or dismissed. If they are not, they are subject to the full penalties the law affords for their crime.
While there are drug courts all over New York State and the country, each individual drug court develops its own rules, Watson said. What may be acceptable in one drug court isn’t in another, and vice-versa. To graduate from Lockport’s drug court, there is a list of goals that must be met.
The criteria for graduation from the program includes being clean for one year, completing the treatment that that has been outlined for the individual by the treatment team, including any mental health, anger management or domestic violence services that have been deemed necessary and having a high school diploma or GED. Participants must also have any fines owed to the court paid off, be employed and be off of social services, Watson said.
The last component is a community service project that each individual must come up with on their own, and follow it through to completion.
“They must come up with an idea to give back to the community that has invested in them,” Watson said.
There are four phases in the drug court, each allowing participants a little more freedom, in terms of how many meetings they have to attend, or how often they have to report to the court.
The program is judicially monitored, and Watson takes the time to know everyone who comes before him in the court. There are currently around 140 people enrolled in the drug court.
The participants appreciate the ability to speak directly with the judge, according to Joseph Claypoole, drug court resource coordinator.
Lockport has one of the more difficult drug court programs in the area, Claypoole said, adding that he often tells prospective participants that it’s going to be easier to do the jail time they are facing than to complete the program.
“If they want to proceed, they do,” he said. “They know up front that it’s going to be a difficult program.”
For Harry Erickson, drug court has been a saving grace. In the throes of more than decade-long opiate addiction, he was arrested for stealing from his brother last year. The 35-year-old Lockport native opted for drug court, and is on the way to graduating and turning his life around. It didn’t come easily, and he’s had his stumbles.
“I took drug court just to get out of jail and go get high,” he said. “That’s what I did. I got out, and I got high.”
He was only able to pull that off for so long, as the treatment team working with him caught on quickly to what was going on.
“I’m thinking I’m getting away with something,” he said. “They all talk. I got caught for using.”
Erickson was sent to several inpatient facilities to get clean. Little by little, the treatment he was going through started to work. However, he still had the desire to get high.
“I got out again and got high,” he said.
By this time, no one expected Erickson to be successful in the program. Based on his previous arrests, a previous unsuccessful attempt to complete drug court in 2008 and his relapses, expectations were low.
“They didn’t think I was going to make it,” he said, referring to Watson and the treatment team.
Erickson went back to inpatient, and when he was going to be released to outpatient treatment, he requested to stay in the facility.
“I had a little bit of the knowledge, and I didn’t want to keep doing this,” he said. “I was tired.”
Eventually, Erickson worked his way through inpatient system and into a halfway house in Buffalo. He didn’t want to go to Buffalo, but it ended up being a good thing for him.
“I met new people and got a clear mind on stuff,” he said.
Now clean for 11 months, Erickson has a job, completed his GED and is on the verge of moving onto phase three of the drug court program. While he tries to keep his goals manageable, he does want to go back to trade school to learn how to work on computers. He’s also starting to think about getting his own apartment. The biggest thing, however, is that he’d like to get his 12-year-old son back.
The key to his success in the program, Erickson said, is that he stopped fighting what the treatment team was trying to do, and started doing what they were suggesting to him.
“It sounds easy, but it’s not,” he said. “You have to put in a lot of effort, but it can be done.”
There are several treatment options available for addicts in the area. Horizon Health Services, for example, has detox facilities for addicts where they can reduce the discomfort opiate users experience while going through withdrawal, said Nick Gazzoli, a drug treatment counselor at Horizon Health Services who specializes in opiate addiction.
Northpointe Council has locations in Niagara Falls and Lockport, and offers a variety of treatment services to addicts looking to get off of heroin, including inpatient facilities and outpatient services.
Addicts in recovery usually attend individual meetings with their drug counselor, as well as group meetings with other addicts where ideas and learning experiences are shared, Gazzoli said.
There aren’t any guarantees that an addict will stay clean after they leave treatment, Gazzoli said, but if they do use again, help is available.
“If something happens, pick up the phone,” he said.
With the rise in heroin use across the state and country, New York State Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman announced the availability of naloxone, also known by its brand name, Narcan, a drug that instantly reverses the effects of an opiate overdose, to law enforcement agencies throughout the state. The program, called the Community Overdose Prevention program, or COP, aims to train every law enforcement agent in the state on the use of the drug.
Locally, the Niagara County Sheriff’s Office will be training deputies on how to use naloxone “shortly,” according to Niagara County Undersheriff Michael Filicetti.
The Lockport Police department is looking into obtaining naloxone as well, Lockport Police Chief Larry Eggert said.
“If we can save one life, it’ll be worth it,” he said.
For families struggling with a family member who’s using, sometimes the best thing that can happen is to have the person arrested so they can get into drug court and start getting treatment, Eggert said.
“It’s the tough love approach,” he said. “Often times, families won’t do that.”
As Harry Erickson looks to the future, he’s proof that treatment can work. For him, his worst days sober are “a million times better” than his best days using. For anyone struggling with addiction, Erickson offers some advice.
“There really is hope,” he said.