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Drug court combats increased drug abuse, reduces incarceration

Robin

Robin Knight outside of the Cleveland County courthouse on Jan. 19. 

As Americans grapple with increased drug abuse in a post-pandemic world, Robin Knight, a local drug court graduate, saw her arrest as a miracle. 

During the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic, there was an approximate 30 percent increase in drug overdose deaths, according to a report from the Republican Policy Committee. Many struggling addicts are faced with a choice: serve prison time or opt into drug court.

“By God’s grace, I actually got arrested one night in 2013, and I was offered drug court or six months in county jail. I spent one night there already, and I knew I didn’t want to go to jail,” Knight said. 

After her arrest for felony possession of methamphetamine, Knight elected to attend drug court, a 14-month, five-phase program aimed at achieving and maintaining recovery for drug users who have been charged with nonviolent felony drug offenses. 

Knight’s struggles with drug addiction began with a dependency on pain pills prescribed for headaches in 1999 which led her to Valley Hope, an addiction treatment and recovery center, in 2006. Her 30-day rehab helped get her off pills, but while she was there, she met someone who introduced her to meth.

“I thought I was good but what I didn’t realize was I was always trying to fill up the emptiness and pain I had with something,” Knight said. “My friend ended up putting a needle in my arm and then I was right back to being hooked on something again.” 

Looking back on her meth use from 2006 to her arrest in 2013, she said she was lucky to be alive. While fentanyl dominates headlines, meth overdoses have been responsible for the majority of overdose deaths in Oklahoma according to the Oklahoma State Department of Health.

After her arrest, Knight realized something had to change. She was ready to end her addiction, and potential jail time was the final push she needed.

“I got to the point where I was 46 years old, and honestly, it was kind of a realization for me that, man, I was just sick,” Knight said. “Sick of living like that, sick of being miserable.” 

Michael Tupper, who presides over Cleveland County’s drug court, said voluntary rehab was ideal but the reality of addiction often complicates that process. 

“The beauty of drug courts is we give an individual a choice, you can choose treatment or prison,” Tupper said. “It is a voluntary program but the reason they work so effectively is because I’m yet to meet somebody who wants to go to prison.”

Looking back on when she started the program, Knight said weekly court dates, three Alcoholics or Narcotics anonymous meetings per week and random drug tests kept her busy. 

“The first phase is really about getting you into a schedule and holding you accountable,” Knight said. 

In drug court hearings, participants approach the judge one by one and list their days of sobriety and what they’ve accomplished, such as maintaining a full-time job. Participants can also petition the judge to graduate to the next phase of their program. 

One of the biggest challenges throughout the process is the struggle of passing all the required drug tests, but not always for reasons relating to sobriety, Knight said. Maintaining sobriety was never her issue, but rather balancing a system of constant random testing, a full-time job and various counseling and therapy appointments.

“I was always concerned she was gonna lose a job because they call and tell you to go get tested whenever they feel like it,” Janis Parker, Knight’s biological mother, said. “You’re trying to explain to your boss that I need to leave or I’ll be right back, and especially when you start a job that can look bad.” 

For drug testing, Knight said she was assigned a color and had to call every day to see if her color was going to be tested. She said the uncertainty of whether she would be tested on any given day was a significant part of the difficulty in balancing her schedule. 

Knight said another difficulty she found in maintaining her schedule in drug court was random drop-ins from her probation officer. Knight said it was stressful, but just the push she needed to get over her addiction. 

Tupper said sending an offendant to drug court costs Oklahoma taxpayers around $5,000 a year compared to $19,000 a year for incarcerating them. Cleveland County’s drug court has an approximate 80 percent graduation rate, Tupper said. 

“More than half of the people getting released from prison are reoffending within three years,” Tupper said. “You’re saving taxpayer money by investing in these programs. You’re actually getting better outcomes because you’re reducing crime.”

Tupper said the pandemic created many difficulties in drug courts but also opened up possibilities like new technology options. The process of drug court involves many in-person meetings, court hearings, counseling and therapy, so due to COVID-19, they transitioned to telehealth. 

“One good thing about telehealth is it eliminated a barrier our participants struggle with mightily, which is lack of transportation,” Tupper said. “We just eliminated that whole obstacle.” 

While drug court has returned to pre-pandemic operations, Tupper said they now utilize telehealth as an option in certain instances, like sickness. He stressed the importance of in-person meetings for drug recovery but saw the value in learning ways to implement virtual options. 

“I’m always looking for tools that will assist folks in exiting or avoiding the justice system,” Tupper said. “These programs are smart investments in restoring families and restoring lives, so they’re just good programs to get behind.” 

Reflecting on Knight’s graduation from drug court, her mother said it was the proudest moment of her life. Knight, however, thought back to how nervous she was as she stood in front of the entire court.

She said despite her anxiety, she was encouraged by her biological mother and son attending the graduation. Knight addressed the court and cited the willingness, humility and gratitude that helped her through the program. 

“You sit through weekly court and you see people go back to jail. You see people that don’t show up. You see a lot of people that don’t make it,” Knight said. “Completing drug court is probably one of the hardest things I’ve ever done, but it’s my proudest accomplishment.”

This story was edited by Alexia Aston, Jazz Wolfe and Karoline Leonard. Nikkie Aisha copy edited this story. 

news reporter

Caleb Wortz is a journalism senior and a news reporter at the Daily. He started at the Daily in the spring of 2022. He is originally from Sapulpa, Oklahoma.

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