Gov. Maggie Hassan has signed into law a bill to put state dollars into new and existing drug court programs across New Hampshire.
But for the past four years, Belknap County has been running its own drug court program without any financial help from the county, state or federal government.
They call it recovery court and it’s under the direction of a judge who has placed compassion at the heart of the program.
When you sit in the back of Judge James Carroll’s Recovery Court in Laconia, you won’t feel like you’re in court.
“Do you have your phone?,” Carroll asked recent graduate Kaitlyn Millette, who just found out she might have complications with her pregnancy. “Yes,” Millette replied. “Make sure you are going to call her or get a hold of somebody here. I will close down the darn court, I’ll come pick you up – not sure you can fit in my little car though," Carroll said with a chuckle.
If you didn’t know better, you might mistake Judge Carroll for a friend - he jokes with the participants, asks them personal questions about their kids and jobs and even attends events with them such as AA meetings.
Carroll has been on all sides of the criminal justice system – defense attorney, prosecutor and now judge.
And along the way he grew frustrated with seeing the same faces - people who were battling a drug addiction but not getting the help they needed.
“I grew up in this community. A lot of the people who come in front of me I know. I know their history, I know their family, I know their grandparents,” Carroll said.
That’s why Carroll teamed up with other community leaders to launch the county’s first drug court. Not calling it that though, Carroll said, is important.
“From day one, I am not calling this drug court because I really think it sends the wrong message," Carroll said. "To me it is the equivalent of saying this is losers court, this isn’t losers court.”
Instead it’s Recovery Court, a very intentional name that he and the volunteers agreed on in 2012. Carroll’s philosophy: When it comes to drug addiction - recovery is rooted in connection.
“I just think if a person knows that they care about you and they care enough to work hard with you – it changes your whole perspective on life,” Carroll said.
Currently there are drug courts in Nashua along with Cheshire, Grafton, Rockingham and Strafford Counties. Most have used federal grants and county money to get started.
And this past session’s bill on drug courts doesn’t guarantee that Laconia’s recovery court will see those state dollars.
Belknap’s program is more or less structured like those other drug courts – participants are non-violent drug offenders. They have to undergo treatment, counseling, volunteer service and have weekly to monthly check ins in court. In exchange - participants don’t have to go to jail.
Scroll down below to see the complete handbook for Laconia's Recovery Court.
A total of 26 people have enrolled in the program, so far nine have graduated and 10 have been kicked out for breaking the rules. Overall the success rate is around 60 percent, which compared to national numbers is average.
And besides the name, Belknap County’s program is run by an all-volunteer team who attend these weekly meetings during their lunch breaks. Because of this - only 10 people can be in the program at a time.
Like Kaitlyn Millette who graduated from the program in February.
“I can’t express how grateful I am for the many chances you allowed me to have. From the bottom of my heart I thank you for never giving up hope,” Millete told Judge Carroll while fighting back tears.
Millette began using heroin at 15 but has been clean for two years. She’s working, just gave birth to her second child and soon to become a licensed recovery coach in New Hampshire.
Standing proud at her graduation, Millette told the crowd that this program saved her life.
“Today I look forward to that ten years down the road when my past is just a faded memory – nobody remembers who I was then," Millette said. "I am reintroducing myself – you know –this is really Kaitlyn- not the Kaitlyn from eight years ago who did those horrible, horrible things.”
Jacqui Abikoff of Horizons Counseling Center, who plays a major role in keeping this program running, said when it comes to addiction – recovery isn’t easy.
“When you are in the throes of active addiction, there is no choice," Abikoff said. "The thing that is so critical to understand, you’re talking about a brain disease. You’re talking about chemicals that have altered the normal chemicals in your brain.”
And those involved in the program will be the first to tell you – Recovery Court is no walk in the park.
Like when Judge Carroll learned participant Liz Gates skipped several meetings and appointments this past summer, he didn't hesitate to send her to jail for a few days.
“Here’s the deal the court is going to incarcerate you beginning at 6 p.m. this afternoon. And starting at 7 a.m. Thursday morning, a new leaf in this effort, ok?,” Carroll told Gates from the bench.
Belknap County Prosecutor Melissa Guldbrandsen said at first she was skeptical that the program would be too lenient, but now sees it's far from easy.
“The Recovery Court requires that they work hard, that they abide by additional rules and regulations in my opinion are more stringent that sitting in jail,” said Guldbrandsen, who also helps out with the program.
The county's jail superintendent, Keith Gray, is on board as well.
“I’m good at locking people up, I can lock them up all day long but they’re not staying there the rest of their lives, they’re all going to go back to their towns and their families, so just locking them up isn’t working,” said Gray, adding that three-fourths of the county jail's population has a substance abuse disorder.
As the recovery court graduation wrapped up this past February, Judge Carroll left the crowd with a story he’s told several times before, but one he said that’s all too fitting for the occasion. It’s about an older man who approached a young boy on the beach tossing starfish back into the water.
“And the older man said to the young boy, but you can’t save them all. 'And he said, you’re right, but I can save one at a time," Carroll said. "That’s what recovery is, that’s what recovery court is and that’s what you both are.”
As the state starts to divvy up the new drug court funding, volunteers at Belknap County are hoping some of those dollars will come their way so they can begin "tossing back more starfish."
Read the Complete Handbook to Laconia’s Recovery Court: