KINGMAN - When Tanika Young marries her Marine later this month, the newlyweds will begin life with the freshest of starts. For Tanika, that means a shoplifting conviction will be reduced from a felony to a misdemeanor, and, in a surprise planned by Mohave County Superior Court Judge and drug court leader Billy Sipe, she was released from probation Friday, nearly a year sooner than expected.
Young was one of five participants in the Mohave County Drug Court pro-gram who graduated in a ceremony at the Mohave County Board of Supervisors Auditorium. Participants in the drug courts of Kingman, Bullhead City and Lake Havasu City were in attendance, and several of them who didn't graduate were promoted to one phase or another of the four-part program.
But this day was for the graduates, who successfully worked through a program that in some ways is more difficult to endure than the alternative to drug court - a term in prison.
And Young did it in spectacular fashion. She holds the record for getting through the grueling, highly invasive and demanding program in less than nine months.That's faster than anyone else has in Mohave County, where drug court began in Kingman in 2013, with Judge Rick Williams and his team of professionals leading the charge.
While Young proved to be the exception - she made it through without ever receiving a single sanction - Bullhead City graduate Adam Naylor represented the other, more typical side of drug court. Like most participants, he was still in the throes of addiction when he first started and it took him a long time and several sanctions before his efforts improved. On Friday, more than two years after his arrest, Naylor graduated.
One tough program
Perhaps drug court is a misnomer. It should be called Drug Court Boot Camp, a prolonged sojourn into a land where people who have complete control over your future break you down to build you back up - until you have a clear head and eyes - and you have the tools needed to stay that way.
Along the way you get two random drug tests each week. You have counseling and other appointments every week, and every Friday morning you must appear for drug court.
You must get a job and keep it, earn your GED if necessary and then work on the drug court mantra. Little by little, learn to live life on life's terms.
While Williams was the first judge to lead drug court, that duty fell on Sipe's shoulders when Williams' was reassigned to Bullhead City. Meanwhile, former prosecutor Doug Camacho was appointed a commissioner court judge, like Sipe, and assigned to Lake Havasu City. In addition to handling full caseloads, the three men run independent drug courts in each of Mohave County's three cities.
While drug court has its critics, the statistics don't lie. The odds a drug court graduate will reoffend are far less than they are for people who go through the normal criminal justice system.
The difference is significant: Normal court treats drug addicts like criminals. Drug court treats them for a disease, where second, third and fourth chances are often granted. For years, drug courts in the U.S. boasted a remarkable success rate, with roughly 85 percent of graduates staying out of trouble as opposed to about 25 percent of people charged in criminal court.
That number has fallen only slightly, to about a 75 percent national success rate for drug court. That success has changed the minds of many former critics, including those in law enforcement and those who work as prosecutors, probation officers and judges.
In Mohave County, however, no drug court participant has fallen afoul of the law after graduating from the program, a statistic that will undoubtedly be ruined at some point, but for now it's a point of pride for everyone involved.
A cop's confession
"Professionally, I have seen the damage drugs do to people, families and the community," said keynote speaker Rusty Cooper, deputy chief of the Kingman Police Department.
Cooper, a Kingman resident for nearly 30 years and a 24-year KPD veteran, also said he's experienced the always negative, sometimes tragic side of addiction on a personal level.
Two people he described as "close family members" were involved with drugs. One of them has damaged relationships with loved ones.
The other one, he said, is dead.
"Contrary to popular belief, the KPD is interested in catching you, but we're also interested in not catching you again," said Cooper.
"I honestly don't want to see you in the back of one of our patrol vehicles."
Cooper noted the program, while challenging, is not cold and indifferent like the criminal justice system can be. He alluded to the benefits of the treatment court approach.
"When you're faced with addiction, it's physical, mental and emotional addiction," he said. Drug court is tough, but the reward is huge.
"Life is not about perfection, but about excelling," said Cooper.
The moment of surrender
Addicts, being addicts, do not always come into drug court with their head screwed on straight.
Williams said they fight so hard at first, but sooner or later, whether they become smarter or sober or just worn down, they hit a "moment of surrender" and start to perform at a higher level.
The relapses end, or at least slow down. The essays they are required to write are more cogent - and some of them are marked up by Sipe, who confessed to being a stickler for grammar and spelling.
The carrot and the stick is in play. The carrot is graduation and a reduced sentence. A second chance. Maybe a third or a fourth chance.
The stick is the threat. Swung lightly and the sanction is an essay. Swung with force and it's a brief incarceration or community service hours - or a demotion, which is considered even worse.
Eventually, sobriety takes hold. Participants begin to shine. Not all succeed, but most do and that results in more than one less drug addict.
Crime is reduced. Families are restored. Lives are saved.