Stringent rules of Drug Court ‘save’ mother’s life
Judge Lauren Lemmon hands Stacie Borges her graduation plaque for completing Drug Court.
When she was arrested for possession of drugs in 2008, Borges had no car, no home, no job and had lost custody of her two children.
But Borges said that getting arrested saved her life.
Her lawyer - now Judge Lauren Lemmon - enrolled Borges in Drug Court, which is an intensive program to rehabilitate non-violent drug offenders.
“Drug Court changed my life,” Borges said. “I’m 35 and before this program all I knew was using to help with anything. (Drug Court) taught me how to live life.”
Less than two years later, Borges is now holding a steady job, has a place to live and has her children.
The parish began its Drug Court program in 2001 under the supervision of Jackie Cristina, who is still the program coordinator.
If a participant were to complete the program in only the minimum 82 weeks, they would have gone through 206 hours of group therapy, 168 Alcoholics Anonymous meetings and 198 urine drug screens. But Cristina said there are always setbacks.
“Before I got involved with Drug Court, I didn’t realize the struggle that an addict goes through. Even though I’ve experienced addiction within my own family I never really understood it. Now I understand it,” Cristina said. “When (participants in Drug Court) do relapse, and they all do, we’re a little bit more understanding.
“Some of them stay in the program for two or more years, so we really get to know them personally…almost like family. When they relapse, the whole team would get upset and disappointed.”
Borges said she hit her fair share of setbacks, but that the program really worked for her.
“They really stuck with us and they didn’t treat us like we were bad people,” Borges said. “They taught us relapse prevention, how to recognize triggers, responsibility and how to be a regular, productive citizen.”
When Borges relapsed just a few months after starting the program, she said that Drug Court helped her get into Odyssey House in New Orleans, a long-term treatment facility.
“I absolutely loved Odyssey House. That place changed my life,” Borges said. She added that the Drug Court team in St. Charles was with her every step of the way.
Borges graduated from Drug Court on May 5 along with five other St. Charles Parish residents, to make a total of 71 graduates of the parish’s program since its inception.
“It’s a shame that these people have to have this convicted felon stigma hanging over them because they’re all good people and they want to do good,” Cristina said.
Tina Marse was another participant in Drug Court who graduated with Borges. Marse and Borges began the program after spending time in jail together.
“It felt like a huge accomplishment. We’ve seen each other grow so much spiritually,” Marse said. “I was 48 when I got arrested. I was homeless, living in my car and through the program I’ve learned how to keep a job. I’m independent. I now have a relationship with my children again.
“And more than that, I have respect from people in the community and from my children.”
The Drug Court team is now composed of Cristina, substance abuse coordinator Christie Jackson, Assistant District Attorney Juan Byrd, Compliance Officer Gregory Johnson, Attorney Juanita Marino, Attorney Christina Lewis, Michael Collins with the Department of Corrections and the three parish judges: Emile R. St. Pierre, M. Lauren Lemmon and Robert A. Chaisson.
The most-thanked member of the team during the graduation ceremony was Gregory Johnson, the compliance officer who constantly checks up on those in the program.
“I tell everybody, (Greg) can be your best friend or your worst enemy,” Cristina said. “I don’t know how he does it, but he has this special intuition. When he feels like somebody’s messing up, he knows just the right time to pull up to their house and check on them.”
Cristina said that while most of the people in Drug Court don’t like Johnson in the beginning, he ends up being their favorite person.
The three parish judges alternate the years they work with Drug Court. Judge Lauren Lemmon got to be the one to oversee Borges’ graduation.
“I’ve kind of come full circle,” Lemmon said. “It’s really a privilege to me to be able to hand these people those certificates.
“Helping people and seeing people succeed to me is what this is all about.”
Lemmon said that most people would think that these offenders belong in jail, but that the program is a much better option for the offenders and for the public.
“Some people think that Drug Court isn’t the politically correct thing because people think drug addicts belong in jail…drug dealers belong in jail. It’s the dealers who are the problem,” Lemmon said. “Locking the door and throwing away the key isn’t going to work - we don’t have enough room to put everybody in jail. (Drug Court) saves everybody money, especially tax payers, and it works.”
Lemmon is so sure of the program’s success that she is looking into expanding it to include juveniles.
“I’m talking with some of the programs that have juvenile Drug Courts. I don’t think it’s going to be difficult because we already have Drug Court in place and… a lot of what we’re doing already kind of qualifies,” Lemmon said. “I think if we start a juvenile program we would have less adults. The earlier we catch them, the more likely it is that they’ll succeed.”
The St. Charles Community Health Center provides treatment classes for Drug Court participants, including the group therapy.
Jackson, the substance abuse coordinator for the center, said that working with Drug Court has been a life-changing experience.
“It’s something amazing, something unlike other treatment programs,” Jackson said. “There are so many things they have to accomplish. They don’t want to be there and they’re immature in the beginning. Most of them start out because they don’t want to go to jail…that’s their main motivation.
“In the end, they’re working and being reunited with family.”
Now that Borges has graduated from the program, she is planning on spending her life helping others.
“I’m thinking about taking some courses for counseling,” she said. “And possibly going into helping other addicts.”
The graduation this month coincides with National Drug Court month, which is coordinated by the National Association of Drug Court Professionals. There are 2,400 operational drug courts in the U.S.
Nationally, 75 percent of Drug Court graduates are never arrested again.
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