Each Thursday, Albany County’s Circuit Court Judge Robert Castor gives up his courtroom on the fourth floor of the courthouse to Bob Southard.
Southard is the attorney for the city of Laramie, but once a week, he also puts on judge’s robes and presides over the weekly check-ins for criminal defendants whose cases are being adjudicated in Albany County’s drug court, formally known as the Adult Court Supervised Treatment Program.
The county’s drug court serves as an alternative to the way most criminal cases are handled.
After being convicted of a crime, defendants with drug or alcohol addictions can be admitted to the drug court, which requires them to get sober to avoid jail time.
Typically, it’s people who are arrested on drug and alcohol charges who are recommended for the program. People arrested for other charges can also be recommended if drug or alcohol abuse were an underlying factor in their crimes.
More and more, the county’s drug court is handling felony cases.
Prosecutors and treatment providers alike think that it would be beneficial to handle more cases in drug court.
While the Albany County Attorney’s Office might refer more than 100 cases a month to drug court staff, the program has — in recent years — only been able to handle 17 defendants at a time.
And there’s not that frequent of turnover. A defendant who succeeds, without any relapses, is likely to take two years to complete the program.
The basic funding for drug court comes from a $164,000 state grant Albany County has to reapply for each year. The only money Albany County taxpayers are directly putting up is the $30,4000 matching funds to receive that grant.
Anyone participating in drug court has already been convicted of a crime. To avoid jail (or prison) time, they’re vetted to determine whether they’re appropriate for drug court.
“I meet with them and there’s a lot of data I need to collect to see if they’re appropriate,” said Amy Terrell, the drug court supervisor.
She screens defendants through COMPAS, a software recidivism assessment tool, as well as a University of Wyoming-created application for handling drug court cases.
“What I’m watching for is those levels of need,” Terrell said. “If both of those come back as ‘high risk, high need,’ then I would send them to the Clinic of Mental Health and Wellness for an (Addiction Severity Index test). If that comes back with an appropriate level, I have probation go and visit with them and tell them all the rules. That’s someone with a misdemeanor drug charge or alcohol charge.”
Felonies have an even more rigorous screening process.
“I go meet with them and, if I think they are appropriate, they get a pre-sentence investigation through the Department of Corrections,” she said. “Once that’s done, then we meet with the attorneys. Both attorneys have to approve it and the participant has to agree to it. You don’t want to bring someone in here that doesn’t want to get clean. That doesn’t make sense. They have to be at the point where it’s time to make a change.”
Terrell said the success rate is about 80%. Some who leave the program do so voluntarily.
They would rather go to jail.
A father figure
There are quite a few people involved in drug court’s programming. The county has a grant-funded case manager and peer specialist, a person who’s gone through the program and now helps participants deal with sobriety. There’s a full-time probation agent from the Department of Corrections that serves the program.
The court taps the Clinic of Mental Health and Wellness for numerous services, including a psychiatric nurse practitioner. There’s also the attorneys involved and an expansive advisory committee of various governmental leaders.
But of all the people involved, it’s certainly not Bob Southard who’s spending the most time with the drug court participants. Drug court staff said its the participants’ relationships with the judge that’s most important in determining whether they succeed.
“By the time they get to drug court, they’re used to pretty negative interactions with the courtroom,” drug court case manager Claire Flaherty said. “To have a different experience with the judge is huge.”
While Southard might wear black robes each Thursday, his courtroom has a different feel than most.
He’s not just a judge. He’s a father figure.
One defendant in drug court even asked Southard to be the best man at his wedding.
Each Thursday, drug court participants show up and sit in the jury box of the Circuit Courtroom.
One by one, Southard calls them up to the lectern.
The judge asks the defendants about their lives. He knows how many kids they have. He knows who they live with.
He asks what challenges they faced in the last week. He asks about what triggers might cause them to relapse.
And often, they answer honestly. They’ll admit when they’re struggling.
“It’s been an up-and-down week,” one defendant told him June 27. “There’s been a lot of external triggers. Partying on both sides of my apartment.”
Terrell said getting that kind of honesty in a courtroom is important, and it’s something that only comes from defendants building relationships with the judge.
Southard applied for the job five years ago when Matt Castano, the drug court’s presiding judge at the time, was appointed to a Circuit Court judgeship in Sundance.
At the time, he had never done any other magistrate work.
“After 30 years practicing law, I started to see that in some instances, there’s got to be a better way of dealing with non-violent offenders than jail,” he said. “I just wanted to be fully on board and shepherd that process.”
Typically, defendants in criminal cases are likely to see the presiding judge only a few times. When a defendant does speak in a typical criminal court, they’re often focused on saying only the right things — or nothing at all, Southard said.
When participants slip up in drug court, Southard is the only person who can issue sanctions. He’s also the only person who can hand out incentives.
Sometimes, that’s Walmart gift cards. Sometimes, drug court staff members organize sober events, like a scavenger hunt at the Wyoming Territorial Prison State Historic Site or ice skating.
A lot of the time, simply being praised by Southard can mean a lot.
“Having the judge say ‘I’m proud of you’ is a lot more important than giving them $50,” Terrell said.
“We’ve had some people who’ve come in and say they’ve never heard that before,” Flaherty added.
At the end of each weekly conversation with a defendant, Southard announces how many days of sobriety they have. Often, it’s several hundred days.
Southard knows how to build a rapport. Drug court involves a lot of clapping and a lot of laughing.
Southard’s a funny man, and he cracks jokes about defendants’ lives in a way that doesn’t rub them the wrong way.
But he also knows how to get stern quickly when necessary.
During the June 27 weekly check-in, Terrell approached the judge’s bench and told Southard one defendant is suspected of forging slips proving his attendance at Alcoholics Anonymous.
“I want to know the truth and I want to know it now,” Southard tells the young man sternly. “If these slips are forged, it’s a very serious matter.”
The defendant denies forging the slips. Southard takes him at his word — for now. He’ll defer judgment until they can double-check with AA.
Southard immediately changed his tone and asked the defendant, who has 334 days of sobriety, what he’s been up to.
“Still watching the Tigers suck,” the defendant said.
“Yeah, it’s just awful,” Southard responded. “It’s like going to a funeral five days a week. Do you see any hope for the Tigers?”
“I see us being at the bottom of the division,” the defendant said.
“Maybe forever,” Southard said.
This kind of banter, which Southard calls “a more human interaction,” is common. At that same court hearing, he pressed another defendant for a better TV show recommendation after her only suggestion was “Frasier.”
“I’m trying to get them out that mindset that the court is there to punish them,” Southard told the Laramie Boomerang.
Another defendant, who was sober for 131 days, got up June 27 and detailed the long hours he’s spent working at his new job while also trying to stay on top of his drug court responsibilities.
This man’s also trying to raise children.
“It feels good showing up early to something,” he told the judge. “That’s amazing. That’s not me. I was going to show up later for my funeral.”
Southard asked him how parenting is treating him.
“No sleep, man,” the defendant said. “Last night, I got an hour and a half, so I guess that’s pretty good.”
Southard told the man he’s concerned about a relapse if the defendant gets too burnt out.
It’s a fear the defendant acknowledges is a real possibility, but he also has hope.
“When my daughter says ‘I love you,’ it’s just that so much more reassuring,” he said.
Southard said he’s not sure he could take on some of the challenges his defendants have.
“Almost all of them are juggling on several fronts,” he said. “These are people from all walks of life. All have relationships, whether it’s marriages or otherwise. I’m just not sure whether I could navigate all that.”
Before he took over, Southard said he spent a lot of time studying the role that a drug court judge is expected to play. He read literature and studied Castano’s approach.
The “two-fold” role of a drug court judge involves two disparate things “not always easily reconciled.”
“The judge is there to support and celebrate,” he said. “I have to make them feel like they can be honest. But I’m also there to enforce the rules. It’s a balance you try to learn. You learn where the lines are.”
Some defendants are quicker to warm up to Southard than others.
“What’s most common I suppose is that in the first few months, they’re trying to figure out what’s going on,” he said. “Some aren’t immediately drawn to me or the program. I try to graduate my interactions with them as the months go on. And the good thing is that someone in their first few weeks will sit there and see how I interact with the longer-term people. Then, they can make decisions on how they interact with me. I am not their friend, but I am their supporter, and it’s up to them whether they want to warm up to me.
Sometimes, at the end of each Thursday check-in, there’s a “graduation.” That’s a person who’s finally completed their drug court program.
“Some people get through in 12 months, but it’s really rare,” Terrell said.
The county’s drug court can go months without having a graduation. In the last three weeks, there’s been one every week.
On June 27, it was Sam Harris’ turn. This was one that drug court staff members were looking forward to.
Harris was arrested for a DUI in June 2017 when he was found drunk, sitting behind a steering wheel of a parked car.
“I wasn’t even driving, but I took it as a godsend,” Harris said. “That was my higher power talking to me and telling me I needed to find meaning."
At the time, Harris knew he needed change, the 32-year-old told the Boomerang.
“I came in a raging alcoholic and I knew it,” he said.
Harris grew up in rural Vermont in a culture where “everybody drinks and drives.”
Shortly before he moved out to Wyoming, he had 18 months of sobriety before he starting drinking again.
“Things went downhill fast,” he said. “I lost my job and my significant other. I was just drinking into a bottomless pit.”
One member of the drug court team said at Harris’ graduation that he’s never seen any individual experience the amount of loss in life that Harris has.
“That contributed to my alcoholism,” Harris said. “I did not know how badly it was affecting my alcoholism until I went to treatment. The treatment aspect has been a big thing for me to help me get through certain things in my life that I didn’t know how to process.”
About a year before his last DUI arrest, Harris moved out to Wyoming to work at his cousin’s business, and his heavy drinking continued.
“It just got worse and worse,” he said. “There was a point where I was drinking an 18-rack and a pint every single night until I passed out. I would resort to alcohol for any reason I saw.”
After his last DUI, Harris was admitted to the county’s drug court program.
He came in with the attitude drug court staff members hope to see. He embraced the program and wanted to get sober.
“I wanted to get better and I wanted to change my life and that’s why I succeeded,” Harris said. “Now, I just want to get back in the community and give back. This program has given me one of the biggest chances in life. I got professional help with treatment for free. You just can’t find that. People who seek help through Alcoholics Anonymous can’t get that.”
Still, Harris said programs like AA and Narcotics Anonymous are some of the most useful tools participants in the program are exposed to if they want to stay sober after they leave drug court.
“I think it’s important for people to get a taste of something like that so they can maybe connect themselves to those groups and they might work for them,” he said.
When Harris was recommended for the drug court program, he wasn’t sure what to expect.
“I didn’t know how extensive it would be at first,” he said. “It was very hard at first, but that was also important. Scheduling was really tough. It’s hard to imagine where you’re going to be every hour of the day. But I understand it now. It was building some sort of structure. Some sort of routine in my life.”
The daily grind
A person who enters drug court is only admitted if they’re convicted of a crime.
The entire program consists of five phases. Everyone starts with Phase 1, which is nine weeks of intensive outpatient treatment.
“That’s nine weeks in theory,” Terrell said.
The program’s probation agent, Heather Carter, works in Phase 1 to get participants jobs and a safe place to live.
“We want to get everybody employed so they can pay their rent,” Terrell said. “I don’t worry about food — we can find you food. But I do worry about finding them a place to live that’s healthy. Anyone can find a couch, but is it healthy? Are you going to relapse? And especially with heroin, I worry that they’re going to relapse and die.”
The program isn’t easy. Participants have to work full-time, attend weekly court, pay a $75 monthly fee, submit to frequent drug tests, complete 40 hours of community service, participate in a sober network and comply with other rules the drug court team imposes.
To move onto Phase 2, each individual needs 14 days of sobriety.
“Then they go to Phase 2, where we individualize the treatment for what fits best,” Terrell said. “If you need anger management, grief counseling, family counseling — whatever is going on in your life to get you to this point, we provide different counseling.”
Random home visits and drug testing continue through all five phases.
Once a participant reaches Phase 5, which requires at least 36 weeks in the program and 149 days of sobriety, the curfews drop off. So too do the required court appearances.
Still, a person in Phase 5 needs another 120 days of sobriety to complete the program.
Like everyone else in drug court, Sam Harris’ program involved a lot of group counseling.
“It was frustrating to go to work for 12 hours and then go to a group, but the counselors had wonderful information,” Harris said. “I give the counselors a lot of credit, because they had to deal with a lot of goofiness and frustration. They held their cool and they had all the information to help me retrain my brain to a life of sobriety — to figure out what alcoholism did to my brain. … They helped me work on what I needed to work on, but a lot of the self-realization didn’t come without me being completely honest with myself.”
It’s people like Harris who are the easiest part of the job for Southard.
“It’s easy to describe what’s fulfilling: When there’s someone who comes in and embraces the program and works honestly with the team, they start to feel good about themselves and continue the program to the end,” he said. “The challenge is when there’s someone you have for a while and they slip. And then after a number of months, you might have to make decisions about whether to let that person go to make room for someone else. That’s hard, but we’re not here to save people. We’re here to put out a lifeline.”
It’s rare that a person who “embraces the program” is unable to maintain sobriety during his or her time in the program, Southard said.
“What I find is more common is that there might be people who embrace the program, and maintain sobriety through graduation, and then you learn a number of months later that they slipped back into a bad spot,” he said.
Two years after entering it, Harris has finished the program. July 4 marked two years of sobriety for Harris and he’s now on unsupervised probation.
“This is the longest I’ve been sober since I was 12 years old,” he said.
At all graduations, Southard addresses the defendants and talks about their journeys. Then team members talk to the defendant. Other participants in drug court also are given the opportunity to say something if they’d like.
Southard said Harris handled the program in an “unusual way.”
“When we first met, you seemed intent on getting sober,” he told Harris. “And that’s what I’ve seen. Week by week. Month by month. All that work is yours. … It’s such a pleasure to see you in this position.”
At his final check-in, Harris also had some advice for all the other drug court participants.
“Be honest with yourself and be honest with the team,” he said.
Harris said he’s hoping to use his experience to begin working in Laramie treatment programs like drug court.
“I want to grow in the community and help out people who are going through what I’ve gone through,” he said. “I want to get connected with the treatment programs.”
He said that might mean pursuing higher education.
“I never went to college,” he said. “I’ve been building houses and working in construction since I was a kid. I don’t have any schooling toward (drug and alcohol treatment) so I might need that, but I’m just really happy with where I am.”
A growing program
Under new grant funding the county has received in the past year, drug court enrollment will rise from 17 to 40 by October. When Terrell started in 2016, drug court had just eight participants.
In December 2016, the National Association of Drug Court Professionals selected Albany County’s drug court to be one of nine mentor courts nationwide. That means Albany County trains some of the more than 3,000 drug courts that exist in the U.S.
In 2018, the county received a five-year, $1.2 million grant from the federal government’s Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration to expand the program.
That grant allowed the program to provide long-term care and hire a case manager.
“The funding started coming in October,” Terrell said. “With that, we had to take the time to build the infrastructure in the fall. It takes a lot of work doubling your program. The infrastructure’s in place now.”
The drug court then received another 18-month, $251,000 grant from the Wyoming Department of Health to specifically target opioid issues.
To be eligible for those services, defendants must be diagnosed with an opioid use disorder.
That funding has opened up a whole new level of support. The funding has helped support patients with dental care, buy groceries and even reimbursed a defendant driver’s license fees.
“We’ve brought in a lot of heroin users,” Terrell said. “But in 18 months, that grant may go away, but we still need to sustain these programs.”
The drug court’s reliance on grant funding makes it a bit of a fragile entity.
There’s no guarantee state or federal funding will always be available.
Terrell expects there will come a day that drug court will need to rely on community fundraisers or more local governmental funding to continue as its backers hope.
“This is a program the community really wants,” Terrell said. “They just don’t know it yet.”