Locked Up, Covered Up, Sobered Up

May 31, 2017 at 11:01 am
Judge Stephanie Pearce Burke

Riddle me this: what has a head and a foot, at least 40 legs on a given day and an emergency kit to include Narcan, the heroin overdose antidote, in its caboodle?

One of several district courtrooms at the Hall of Justice, thanks in part to the efforts of Judge Stephanie Pearce Burke, who created Jefferson County’s first midemeanant Drug Court in 2015. Conservatives may view such courts as inimical to constitutional principles, but when activist judges advocate saving lives in their courtrooms, perhaps activism is mandatory. Take, for example, Judge Pearce Burke, who said that, in under a month, four people overdosed in the judicial complex and recently two defendants had syringes and drugs inside a courtroom. Narcan was given to the four, who survived.

Talk about having your day in court.

Impassioned (not necessarily a negative trait in a judge, by this lawyer’s standards), Burke leaned down behind her bench and picked up a red cross-emblazoned, white envelope to show me where the Narcan lives in her courtroom. Eight of 17 District Court judges are trained to administer it, she said.

Is there a plague upon us or a scourge?

And what about the kids of the parents who are high at the Hall of Justice, or manage to smuggle in drugs? “A fundamental concern when dealing with addicted defendants who are parents is ‘Where are the children?’” Burke said. She said many defendants ask to not be locked up because there is no one else to pick up their children. While Burke knows of no mechanism that requires district judges to report defendants charged with drug crimes to CPS if there children are at risk, she has no qualms about doing it.

The good news is: Family Court Judge Deborah Deweese said Family Drug Court is close to being revived due in part to the National Council for Jewish Women. Help for addicts in family court is sorely needed.  “These parents are begging us for help,” she said. “They truly desire to get clean and sober and reunify their families.”

Let’s face it, though: Many people view addiction as a  moral weakness, rather than an illness. Bootstraps, meet the draconian right. What people fail to realize, though, according to Burke, is how inaccurate the stereotypes are as to who is using drugs. She called it “the ignorance factor.”

The judge said most addicts have been traumatized as children or adults, and likely have post traumatic stress disorder at the core. Most began using drugs as a coping mechanism, she said, and never received mental health treatment. She thinks opponents could benefit from personal experience with addicts to learn who they are.

“If I could sit every one of my drug court clients in an arena surrounded by their families, people would realize they look just like their own families. They would see these are not kids from some other side of town,” she said.

For her part, Burke said money to expand the Misdemeanant Drug Court could save lives of addicts and families. About 105 people are enrolled, but the number should triple based on the size of the city and opioid epidemic, she said. Incentives to stay clean can be more effective than punishment, according to Burke, yet funds for incentives for the critical first few days and months of recovery can be scarce. To be sure, any funding ask should focus on the likelihood of future family success based on an addicts’ long-term recovery. Clean days turn into clean years and in some cases, knowing their parents as clean and sober people on a daily basis replaces memories of active addiction.

Burke’s hands-on approach in Drug Court has included visiting homes, attending recovery meetings and “sober birthday” celebrations. She has visited hospitalized defendants who overdosed. Addicts who have “bottomed out” have no place to live, no job, no money and no resources. Funding for Drug Court participants at the outset of their recovery is vital to meet their basic needs for food, clothing and shelter, Burke said. The stability of a sober living environment can make all the difference, too.

An emergency fund for food, clothes, diapers, prescription co-pays, eyeglasses and transportation until a parent can work would reduce the stress for the family and aid recovery. Burke said there is “zero budget.” When I asked her what would help, she said it needs a 501(c)(3) with a board to raise funds, similar to CASA and the Healing Place. Then, summoning the full power of the discretion she is invested with in District Drug Court she said “You know who I would like to see help us? Pharmaceutical companies.”