Drug Court offers offenders chance to avoid prison, succeed in community

Published: Jun. 16, 2011 at 8:47 PM HST|Updated: Jun. 17, 2011 at 12:39 AM HST
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Oahu's Drug Court
Oahu's Drug Court
Steven Alm
Steven Alm
Ailini Usuvale
Ailini Usuvale
Usuvale works at Wayne Ogasawara's farm in Mililani
Usuvale works at Wayne Ogasawara's farm in Mililani
Participants that relapse into drug use get put into custody
Participants that relapse into drug use get put into custody

By Minna Sugimoto - bio | email

HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - It's a tough program designed to get drug addicts and dealers on the right path. Hawaii News Now takes a close-up look at Oahu's Drug Court.

Authorities say there are about 1,500 adult drug courts across the country. On Oahu, participants have access to intensive substance abuse treatment programs, as well as other services that should help them succeed in the community.

Initially, Drug Court only accepted non-violent criminals, giving them a chance to avoid prison and remain in the community. But now, a wider variety of drug offenders are getting that shot. The concept is simple -- follow all the rules or get locked up.

"All rise," the bailiff announced.

It's not your typical courtroom. You immediately feel a different vibe. It's a place where the judge, his staff, and the offenders themselves are giving everything they've got to reach a common goal.

"How many days sober?" Steven Alm, presiding Drug Court judge, asked.

"A year and eight months," a program participant proudly replied.

"Okay, excellent," the judge said.

This is Drug Court, where qualified offenders are granted community supervision instead of incarceration. They each get a counselor for drug and alcohol issues, and a case manager for real-life challenges such as housing, employment and budgeting.

"We could send everybody to prison, but it costs about $50,000 a year in Hawaii," Alm said. "Do we really want to send a 25-year-old to Halawa prison for two or three years at $50,000 a year? When they come out, are they going to be better or are they going to be worse?"

Participants undergo regular drug testing and must appear before Judge Alm once a week to start. It's a strict program that doesn't hesitate to reward successful behavior.

"I understand you're the prize winner for May. Congratulations," Alm told a participant, as everyone in the courtroom broke into applause.

Ailini Usuvale started smoking crystal methamphetamine at 12 years old, and landed in Drug Court after getting busted for selling cocaine.

The staff helped the 22-year-old prepare a resume and hone her job interview skills. She now works eight hours a day at Wayne Ogasawara's farm in Mililani.

"With that program, I gained my family's respect back," Usuvale, who's been clean and sober for more than a year, said. "I gained my own respect for myself. I'm achieving better for my life."

The income helps those like Usuvale pay off their court fees, fines and restitution.

"They feel good about that because that's repaying your debt to society in a very real way," Alm said.

On the day of our visit, another Drug Court participant who applied for a job at Ogasawara's farm received good news.

"It sounds like you had a very good interview," Alm told him.

"Yeah, I did," the man replied.

"Well, he just called us this morning and said you got the job. You're hired. Way to go," the judge said, as everyone applauded.

Since it was established by the 1995 state Legislature, the program has admitted 1,032 offenders. One hundred forty-seven are currently participating. Six hundred sixty-six have successfully graduated. Drug Court boasts a completion rate of 75%.

"If you fail at Drug Court, you go to prison," Alm said. "I think that message has gotten across clearly, so the folks in Drug Court realize this is it."

That's not just talk.

"What happened?" the judge asked.

"I relapsed," a participant admitted, knowing the consequences.

"Have a seat," Alm said. "You're going to custody."

Alm became the presiding Drug Court judge three months ago. He immediately issued a challenge -- 100% employment for the offenders in the program.

"Getting a job is not talk," he said. "It is real results. It is real self-esteem."

"Work?" Alm asked a program participant.

"Tuesdays, Thursdays, Saturdays, Sundays," the man proudly replied.

"Good, okay," the judge said. "Paying off fees?"

"Yup," the participant responded.

"Very good," Alm said.

Friday on Hawaii News Now at 6 PM, this reporter spends more time on the farm that's giving drug offenders the chance to get straight, develop job skills and pay off their court debts.

Copyright 2011 Hawaii News Now. All rights reserved.