SOUTH BEND — Anyone who thinks Drug Court is an easy path should ask Dustin Erwin.
After a childhood fighting depression, with family members abusing drugs and going “in and out of jail,” he spent his high school years partying.
Soon he was hooked on heroin and opioids.
Erwin was unable to hold a job for long, and often homeless. He was caught breaking into a Raymond house in search of money to buy drugs.
Facing up to nine months incarceration, Drug Court became an alternative option.
The program is run through the Superior Court of Pacific County with Pacific County Health and Human Services. It is a way for people who have committed felonies in support of drug abuse to turn their lives around.
“Dustin came to Pacific County’s program as someone who was really broken,” said Tessa Clements, point person for the program. “Spiritually and mentally, he just could not continue on the road he was on.”
Erwin described it differently. “I was a lot more than broken,” said Erwin, now 27. “I was soulless — an empty shell of a man. I lived to use and used to live.”
But Clements and other professionals in the courts and health fields considered Erwin a good prospect.
“The aim of the program is to give them their life back through a collaborative effort,” said Judd Comer, court liaison with the Pacific County Jail.
How it began
Erwin and a friend had broken into an empty house believing the owner had died (in fact, the person was in the hospital). As they rummaged around looking for money or anything of value, a neighbor who spotted a flashlight in the darkened house called 911.
Erwin was caught by Raymond Police Department. It was his first criminal charge, and he faced a mandatory sentencing range of 3 to 9 months in jail for the Class-B felony.
Instead, he pleaded guilty March 23, 2018, and entered into the Drug Court program.
Thursday, after more than a year of effort that included some early setbacks, Erwin “graduated.” His guilty plea and record were “dismissed with prejudice” by Judge Don Richter, whose Superior Court in South Bend hosts Drug Court.
In an emotional half-hour session, counselors and others commended Erwin for his sobriety; in turn, he thanked them for seeing his potential.
“Without this program I would be probably dead or in prison the rest of my life,” he said wiping away tears.
More than 30 people including Pacific County Sheriff Robin Souvenir attended to offer support. Drug Court participants commended Erwin’s example.
“You are a big inspiration to me,” said Enrique Benavidez, 47, of Long Beach.
Troy Achord, chemical dependency counselor, noted Erwin’s progress.
“When we met, you were a scared boy. You have grown up to be a man of integrity. These stories are the reason people in my field do what they do.”
‘I want to get out’
The process begins with Comer at the County Jail in South Bend.
As people arrested for felony charges await trial, he begins an interview process designed to weed out serious criminals or those seeking a way to game the system.
“I target those individuals in the jail who might benefit, and get the chance to talk to an applicant one-on-one, to delve into a person’s background,” Comer said. “I meet with them two or three times to gain their trust and have them speak honestly.”
Erwin said he had told someone connected to his case, “I don’t want to be a drug addict. I want to get out.”
Justice and health officials help determine whether the person is serious about reforming their lives, using mental health screening and more background checks.
Drug dealers and people who have committed serious felonies like sex offenders or those involved in gun crimes, are never considered. Examples of the types of eligible crimes would be like Erwin’s, breaking into a house to steal money to buy drugs, or people who eluded police during an escape from a crime scene, which is a felony.
Their defense attorney recommends a client to participate and the county prosecutor’s department must agree. Generally, only offenders who live in Pacific County are considered.
Benjamin Haslam, Pacific County’s chief deputy prosecuting attorney, describes Drug Court as a “valuable tool” because its emphasis is on community safety and changing behavior. Participants must pay full restitution to their victims before they can “graduate,” and must comply with all treatment and supervision requirements.
“Our rules, and our oversight of participants’ compliance, are strict,” he said. “There are many ways for a person to get clean, inside and outside the criminal justice system, and drug court is not for everyone.
“However, it can be the best chance for someone like Dustin who has a genuine desire to change their life and willingness to go through the difficult process of doing so, and a need for accountability and guidance.”
Another person considered in the equation is the victim.
“The victim has a lot of say; it’s not a veto, but it’s pretty close,” said Judge Richter, who welcomes the option as an alternative to the traditional court process to address what he labels “the opioid crisis.”
If accepted after a lengthy process, the applicant has to admit to his or her crimes, attend Drug Court sessions and abide by a set of rules. These regular appearances offer an opportunity for their progress to be reviewed. Drug tests will reveal if they start abusing substances again.
“I have a pretty frank discussion,” the judge said. “We are not interested in people thinking that this is an easy way out of getting some jail time.”
Drug Court has existed here since 2008; some 18 people are in the program today.
One incentive is what happens if they fail. Participants know they will be sentenced for the crimes they have admitted — and face the maximum incarceration in the sentencing range (in Erwin’s case, 9 months in jail). In the past three years, seven have been terminated. Also, days served waiting for their case to be resolved do not reduce their jail time.
“If I place someone into it, I put work into it,” said Richter, a former prosecutor. “We say, ‘We can help change your life.’ It’s someone in the system that has hit rock bottom and are seeking a new beginning and willing to work with us help them get there.”
Have to be serious
Clements, therapeutic courts coordinator with the Pacific County Health and Human Services department, reviews participants’ progress.
She said the program is especially useful for people identified in the beginning phases of a substance abuse disorder. “It is worse to put them in with criminals or those with mental health issues. It’s not good, and they are set up to fail,” she said.
She said participants sign a contract to follow stringent rules. “They really have to be serious about getting their life together,” she said.
Once approved, most check in to an inpatient drug treatment facility, usually followed by extensive outpatient treatment. This can last 15 months.
Erwin said he was required to stay away from fellow drug users.
“That’s difficult, because you don’t have friends,” he said. “You think the people you used with are your friends, but they’re not.”
He spent time at an inpatient center in Spokane. “I was far out of my comfort zone, but everyone was amazing,” he said.
Clements and other team members offer support and practical help, like restoring driver’s licenses and setting up plans to pay restitution, while investigating education and job training opportunities.
The targeted age group for Drug Court is 19 to 56. Clements recalled some past participants had the goal of finishing college; some mature people have found positive ways of “giving back” to the community by volunteering.
Erwin has been performing community service. He has held a job for almost a year and he and his fiancée have just had a baby daughter. He hopes to benefit from more schooling, complete a GED or other credential, and perhaps pursue a career in counseling.
“I want to help others,” Erwin said. “I see a lot of people like those that I was associated with. They are hurting — in and out of jail, I want to help them.”
Pride in changing lives
Judge Richter noted that when there are failures people return to his court for traditional sentencing.
“Drug Courts are not all happy days,” he said. “People make mistakes and get sent back in my courtroom.” But he savors successes like Erwin’s and gave him a hug when he presented him with his certificate of completion. “To have a son have a relationship with his father for the first time time in a decade, or to have a man with pride in his eyes talking about having a job,” the judge said.
For Clements, hearing clients describe how they are putting their lives back on track is rewarding, too; such sessions are emotional for all attending. “Every Thursday after court, I leave loving my job.” she said.
She said Erwin demonstrated integrity.
“You showed tremendous courage,” she told him, adding that his willingness to share his struggle served as an example.
“This will no doubt change the lives of others.”