Just a few years ago, Jennifer Herrick was facing revocation of a deferred sentence for felony possession of methadone, a powerful pain-killer. She was taking pills and committing crimes, and unable to take care of her kids, hold a job or even report to her probation officer.
“I thought I would never see my family again,” Herrick said.
But she gained acceptance into the Lewis and Clark County Treatment Court, just a week after the program started.
“I thought, in her first month or six weeks, Jennifer was going to prison,” District Judge James Reynolds said, recalling her scowling attitude at the start.
Monday, she emerged as the program’s first graduate — sober, employed and with a view life that she can confront challenges, become more self-reliant, and better tackle the pain from her fibromyalgia that she said helped drive her to addiction to pain medications.
Now her kids don’t miss school, and she’s able to pay her bills.
“Life certainly doesn’t seem overwhelming or unbearable,” Herrick, 29, said Monday.
Maybe most importantly, she said she’s developed skills to handle challenges. She said mental health counseling has been crucial to her success, helping her confront issues she never faced while using drugs.
She’s even reduced the number of prescriptions she’s been taking from seven to three.
“I can now really concentrate on my future knowing I can manage this without using,” she said.
Reynolds presented Herrick with a framed certificate and plenty of praise as the first graduate of the county’s treatment court.
The other participants congratulated her with hugs and tears.
A clerk of court gave her a framed set of three small mirrors with the words “Live,” “Laugh” and “Love” written around them.
Reynolds gave her a small model of an old-time bicycle, a metaphor he uses for the program that aims to send people forward under their own control.
“We’re going to hold onto the back of the bike for a while, and then we’re going to let go,” Reynolds said. “We expect you’re going to fall over, and the Treatment Court is going to be there to pick you up.
The path from a downward spiral to self-reliance and self-control is rarely without its detours and pitfalls, Reynolds said. The participants may fall off the bike again and again, and several participants have been sent to jail after falling off one too many times.
“We’re going to put you on the bike one last time,” Reynolds said. “And this time you’re going to ride it by yourself.”
Herrick said she’s continuing in various programs and meetings as she continues on supervision outside the courtroom. She said she’s continuing her education and has her sights set on becoming a self-reliant and productive person.
One key to her success so far: not associating with other drug users.
“The most apparent change is that I’m enjoying my life,” she said.
The Treatment Court involves strict supervision, meeting with counseling groups, and others and hands-on engagement by a county prosecutor, public defenders, probation officers and Reynolds.
Participants have to maintain or seek employment and are subject to numerous drug and alcohol tests to keep them on track.
Reynolds holds Treatment Court every Monday, asking each participant how things are going in their lives and getting updates on school, legal, workplace and family events.
It’s hard work, he said.
As an alternative to jail for certain non-violent offenders, it’s appealing to both the defendants and the law enforcement community, constantly dealing with expense and problems of more inmates at the county jail than it was designed to hold.
Only about a half-dozen people have been involved in the program at one time, but the county has received a grant to extend it to as many as 25 people in the next few years.
Mondays, the participants face the judge and the rest of what he calls the “team.”
This week, one man is grilled for not moving forward with some of the things Reynolds expected. Reynolds described the man as sinking in quicksand and in need of some enthusiasm to reach dry land.
A woman missed some appointment last week — she was sick for part of the time — and gets assigned an additional four hours of community service, to be preformed before the next meeting.
But the woman also tested positive for alcohol. She insists she hasn’t had a drop to drink, even avoiding things like mouthwash and hand sterilizer that might contain alcohol.
Reynolds gave her homework, ordering her to prepare a report on environmental elements that could somehow bring a positive result on the alcohol test.
A new participant says he’s working to better his life “in every aspect” and has even been turning down some job offers.
Drug-dealing, he said, is behind him. He’s even lost 16 pounds.