The Honorable Timothy P. Lydon, J.S.C., works in the Mercer County Courthouse as the drug court judge. He presides over a program that works to address substance abuse as a medical issue, rather than as a crime. Learn more about his work, which is featured in this video by the Financial Times.
How long have you been on the drug court and what is its mission?
I have served as the drug court judge for Mercer County for a little over three years. I’m also chair of the drug court judges committee, which consists of all of the drug court judges from the counties across the state. Working with the drug court advisory committee, the drug court judges committee helps set policy concerning the operation and management of the drug court program.
The drug court program evolved from the belief that drug treatment and intensive supervision could reduce recidivism, improve public safety, and avoid the cost of lengthy prison terms. The typical drug court participant is a non-violent offender who has a moderate or severe substance use disorder. We work with the participants to help put them on the path to recovery and break the cycle of addiction.
Ninety nine percent of drug court participants are prison-bound, which means they would have been sentenced to a state prison if not for the drug court. When you consider that there are 6,500 individuals in the program, we have the opportunity to change the course of countless lives. And if we can intervene to help these people chart a different course we can avoid the personal, societal, and fiscal costs that are the result of addiction and crime.
How does the drug court interact with the medical community?
Every drug court in the state has a team, which includes a judge, the court staff, a prosecutor, a public defender, substance abuse evaluators, and probation officers. We work closely with a number of treatment providers who provide outpatient and inpatient care. Our outpatient providers are considered to be members of the drug court team. The team meets weekly and all of our local providers attend. Outside of the weekly meetings, we collaborate with them on a daily basis to ensure that the participants are achieving their treatment goals.
Medically Assisted Treatment (MAT) has become more prevalent and is an indispensable part of addressing opioid addiction. We have worked with our providers to expand access to MATs, including the use of naltrexone, methadone, and buprenorphine to complement traditional treatment services. Historically, there has been quite a bit of stigma associated with MAT use. Our treatment providers help educate the participants and encourage them to embrace MATs when clinically indicated. I think this aspect of our relationship with our treatment providers and the medical community will continue to expand and evolve over the next several years. It’s exciting to see some of the breakthroughs in the development of addiction medicine and the role of MATs in recovery.
What kind of role do supports, such as counseling, housing, access to nutritious food, job training, and education, play in the program?
All are indispensable elements of long-term recovery. Many participants have difficulty finding suitable housing and meaningful employment. There’s a dearth of halfway houses and sober living facilities to accommodate our participants, who also struggle to obtain employment. Many employers are reluctant to hire any applicant with a criminal record. Participants can spend months in treatment, but their recovery may be short lived if they lack the financial resources and housing to maintain stability in their lives. There’s a real sense of pride in holding a job and being able to provide for your family. I have seen participants relapse in part because of job loss or the inability to obtain housing that is conducive to their recovery.
Each drug court coordinates with community providers to secure these services for the participants. We’re fortunate to have a number of partners who offer invaluable assistance. These include nonprofits, government agencies, and private employers. Our participants have access to educational opportunities, including GED classes and job training programs, and, when available, housing assistance.
One of the priorities of the Chief Justice is to develop relationships with employers to identify and provide full-time employment for successful Drug Court participants. We have had some success. The Hard Rock casino, in collaboration with UniteHere Local 54 (A Quality Institute member), set aside several positions for drug court participants. Going forward, I am hopeful that more employers will open their doors.
Since April 2016, eligible drug court graduates can expunge their entire criminal record. The removal of this impediment will certainly expand the number and types of employment opportunities and is a significant incentive for participants to succeed in drug court.
As a criminal judge, you see people at their lowest points. What would you change in the system in how we address addiction so fewer people would end up in your courtroom — and what role can the health care system play?
Many defendants with substance use disorders are charged or convicted of misdemeanor offenses. They easily slip through the system without anyone addressing their drug-related issues. I know that certain municipalities have initiated early intervention programs, which have been successful.
Similarly, some county jail facilities have started drug treatment programs for their inmates. Once released, the defendant can be referred to a local treatment provider to receive follow up services.
In terms of the healthcare system, I believe we need to expand efforts to develop an integrated approach to treatment. In some parts of the state, drug courts have struggled to obtain access to MATs and develop relationships with doctors to support treatment efforts. It seems like we would benefit from a greater number of medical professionals who are trained in addiction medicine and are available to collaborate with traditional treatment providers.
You have seen people after years in the program living successful lives. How different would their lives be if they went to jail instead of drug court?
My assumption is that they would remain trapped in the cycle of addiction. I base that assessment on the statistics. The rate of recidivism for drug court’s graduates is dramatically lower than the statewide average for all other offenders. Within three years of graduation, less than seven percent of drug court graduates were convicted of a new indictable offense. The comparable rate for an individual who is released from incarceration is 40 percent. The executive branch and the legislature have demonstrated a commitment to the program. As a result, everyone who enters drug court has the chance to build a better life. It is transformational for many individuals, and their achievements ultimately benefit the public and the system as a whole.