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To Help With Addiction, N.H. Drug Courts Offer Reoffenders A Second Chance

Sarah Gibson for NHPR

Natacha Davis is juggling a lot these days. She’s living with her mom, raising her three kids, and training to become a recovery coach to help people overcome addiction.

On a recent evening, she was running out the door for an A.A. meeting in Nashua. As she grabbed her keys, she peered into a Puerto Rican plantain stew simmering on the stove.


“Mom is the food done yet?”

“Not yet!” Her mom answered.

“Alright Mom. I love you. I’ll be back,” Davis opened the door. “You heard me? I love you.”

A year ago, life was different here. Davis was addicted to opioids and to pay for them, she was committing crimes.

“I was pretty good at what I did, I guess,” Davis remembers. “Drug dealing, selling women, robbing people.”

Davis wracked up dozens of charges over the years and spent months at Valley Street Jail. Over the years, she tried rehab eight times. But she kept going back.

“I really wanted to stop using,” she says. “There were times when I was in the bathroom with a needle in my neck and a crack pipe right next to me just crying in the mirror, begging God to help me - like, why can’t I stop? But I couldn’t do it. I could not do it on my own.”

Then came an arrest last year that Davis says changed her life. She had enough charges that she was now facing state prison time. She got one last chance: drug court.

Since July 2016, the state has funded alternative justice systems known as drug court, with the goal of tackling the rate of addiction within New Hampshire's jails, which is estimated far above 50 percent.

Judge Jacalyn Colburn says the Nashua drug court works with reoffenders like Davis, whom the traditional criminal justice system has failed.

“When they’re released, they’re released back to the same community, the same situation, their skill set is no greater than it was when they went in, and they’ll continue to do that which they know how to do,” she says.

In drug court, participants get intensive treatment and community supervision for around two years.  Davis spends hours each day in mandatory group and individual therapy and doing community service. She has random curfew checks and urine tests multiple times a week and check-ins with the drug court team on Tuesdays.

If Davis finishes all this, she will have years more of probation, but she won’t have to go to prison.

“I’m state property, basically,” she says.

After she plead into drug court, Davis quickly learned the two rules of drug court: show up and be honest - no matter what.

Lieutenant Brian Kenney, a member of the drug court team and head of the narcotics division, says many participants struggle at first with telling the truth to cops.

"I don’t expect it in the beginning,” he says. “I expect it not to occur if we’re getting the right people into drug court. It’s supposed to be the most high risk offenders we have - that’s high risk of reoffending, and high risk frankly of overdosing.

Because the drug court team target high-need participants who have been using drugs for years, they expect most to have a relapse in the first few months. That happened once for Davis, but she got help and stayed in drug court.

Her urine tests have been clean for five months - until a few weeks ago, when she tested positive for a banned ingredient found in cold medicine. That’s what brings her to the courthouse today.

In the drug courtoom, a team of social workers, cops, a public defender, and recovery coaches sit at a table in the center with Judge Colburn.

Participants join the table, one by one, to talk about how they’re doing. This accountability to community is a big part of why people say drug court works.

The team has evidence that one woman has relapsed, but she’s denying it, which gets eye rolls from other participants. Another woman, Davis’ former drug dealer, is about to graduate after years in the program.

“This program saved my life,” she says.

“I would say you saved your life,” Colburn responds.

Then, it’s Davis’s turn.

“So, a bump in the road this week with the cold medicine." Colburn says. “At first I was sort of surprised because I thought ‘Wow, Natasha is so smart. She knows what was on the do not take list.'”

Davis has this list in her kitchen - it includes energy drinks and poppy seed bagels, which can interfere with testing, and cold medicine, which some people use to boost their high.

Davis says she had come down with the flu and needed the medicine to get through a day of training for a potential job.

But Colburn says rules are rules.

“You might get sick again next month,” she says. “So at some point, you’re going to have to make a decision about whether you do one thing to the exclusion of another thing, right? Choices.”

Davis get a warning - no punishment. She says this kind of thing makes her feel like a teenager, but she gets it. Colburn gives her positive feedback too, for volunteering at a local recovery center and not relapsing during a recent depression.

This emphasis on changing behavior in the community, rather than locking people up, still has detractors.

Lieutenant Kenney, who was a skeptic at first, says many officers think people who do drugs are just going to commit crimes and should be behind bars.

“These are folks that you did a lot of hard work on to place under arrest and get into the court system to solve whatever problem was in the city,” he explains. “And now they’re just back in the community - how is this possible?”

But the numbers have swayed Kenney. Drug courts typically cost less than half of what it costs to incarcerate people. And national data suggests they reduce the amount of people who reoffend by at least a third.

A few of New Hampshire's drug courts have been around for over five years, but after the state expansion in 2016, drug courts have come to nine out of ten counties and now serve over 350 people.

The question moving forward is how well they work in the long run. The Nashua Drug Court - along with others in the state - is now trying to track people once they’ve graduated from drug court, to see what happens three years down the road.  

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