A look inside Allen County's Drug Court program
A note to readers, this story contains discussion of drugs, addiction and self-harm.
The Allen County court system boasts a number of problem-solving courts that aim to address the root causes of crime, rather than just punishing offenders and overfilling jails. One of the most well-known programs is the Drug Court, which puts those struggling with addiction through a long process to help keep them out of jail, atone for their crimes and get sober.
Allen County’s drug court program was started in 1996 by Allen County Superior Court Judge Kenneth Scheibenberger. After attending a conference which referenced Florida’s Miami-Dade County’s drug court which was started to address generations of people coming through the court system, Scheibenberger began doing some research and found Allen County was experiencing a similar phenomenon.
He then approached then-Allen County Prosecutor Stephen Sims, who was not a fan of the program, according to Allen Superior Judge Fran Gull.
But Scheibenberger applied for and received a $400 thousand grant from the federal government to establish and operate a drug court in the county.
A prosecutor at the time, Gull was Sims’ Chief Deputy and she also was not a fan of the drug court program.
Six years after her election to the bench in 1996, Gull was chosen to take over the program however, when Scheibenberger stepped down in 2002.
“I took it over kicking and screaming,” she said.
Gull still presides over drug court now, more than 20 years later, and her tune has certainly changed.
“It is the best thing I get to do as a judge,” she said.
She admits that she didn’t understand it when Scheibenberger started the program. She didn’t know the science and statistics behind it.
Outside of drug court, Gull is handles major felony cases and she wants to know as little about an offender as she can until sentencing when she receives a pre-sentence investigation report. But drug court is different, Gull says, because people are coming into a program that is a holistic therapeutic program meant to lower recidivism.
On Mondays, she presides over drug court. Some people she sees once a week.
As the judge, Gull has to know the participants in drug court so she can better understand and assist their needs. The court aims to address some of the root causes of drug addiction, such as grief or mental health, by putting participants in programs that address those issues.
“You start to get to know that person," Gull said. "And I know that ‘Doug’ lost his mom a year and a half ago and he’s been struggling really hard with that. So, every time Doug’s in court, I make sure to ask him ‘how are you doing?’ I know we’ve put you in grief counseling, I know you’re still working through that, that’s something that you’re always gonna be working through.”
Zach Dawson is the outreach coordinator for Allendale Recovery. But, before he worked in recovery, he went through it himself. Dawson graduated from the drug court program in 2020, after struggling with a heroin addiction.
Dawson said he had a great childhood, but he liked to party, and by the age of 15 he was addicted to cocaine. It led him through a spiral of drugs that eventually landed at heroin, an addiction that worsened when a close friend took his own life in 2015.
“And I didn’t wanna feel that anymore," he said. "I started using IV heroin all day, everyday. That’s what my life revolved around and it just took off from there.”
Dawson had already had a problem at that point, but after that everything became unmanageable. He didn’t care about his life and was unhappy with himself, which made him begin to try to overdose as a means of suicide.
“I was too scared to actually do it myself, but I didn’t want to wake up,” Dawson said.
Dawson did 45 days in treatment in 2018, but when he came home, he didn’t have a system set up to keep him sober. Within a week, he was using again. He was fired from his job for keeping drugs and paraphernalia in his company car. He’d also been stealing from customers.
In October 2018, Dawson overdosed in his car and woke up to a police officer knocking on his window, with drugs visible on his center console. He was booked into jail immediately and put into drug court in early November.
“And I, you know, I was really scared then," he said. "Because; A, I hadn’t stopped using, B, I didn’t know how to stop using and C, I was always told that that program was set up for failure.”
The drug court program is not easy, something that anyone who has been through it or worked on it will attest to.
“Do we have failures? Absolutely, we have failures," Gull said. "Do we have people that overdose and die? Absolutely, we do. But the vast majority of people that we are working with really do want the help, and they really do want to get better, and they really do not want to be involved anymore in the criminal justice system. And they really wanna have their life back.”
A study done by the National Institute of Justice found that drug courts produce significant reductions in drug use and criminal behavior, as well as improving social outcomes of participants.
For example, participants of drug court were significantly less likely to report a need for employment, educational and financial services. They also reported significantly less family conflict.
And, according to the Nelson A. Rockefeller Center for Public Policy and the Social Sciences, drug courts have a 69- percent success rate for lowering recidivism, compared with the 25-percent success rate of traditional incarceration.
And, it means savings for taxpayers, as well, with drug courts costing about $12,000 a year per offender, versus $40,000 for each prisoner.
But with a program this tough, there are people who take two or three tries in drug court to take it seriously and get through it. Other factors also make it harder, like the costs involved in staying in the program.
“We’ll have folks get to the end of the program and recognize that, yeah, it was expensive, but I’m worth it," Gull said.
For Dawson, the program has had a tangible outcome on his life, as he’s moved up in his position at Allendale Recovery, and on his family. He spoke at the drug court graduation in December of last year, sober almost five years to the day.
“I’ve gained everything back," he said, addressing the graduates. "My sanity, my happiness, my children. I have three kids now and my two youngest have never seen their father high.”
While the program aims to help people struggling with addiction who have ended up in the criminal justice system get treatment and stay out of the court system for good, that doesn't mean it is an easy process.
Many people fail to get clean their first time.
Stephanie Perrin moved from the first level to the second level of drug court in August of last year. She initially started in Drug Court in December 2022, but had to restart the program due to failed tests and new charges in May 2023.
“I did mess up at first," she said. "At first, I didn’t take it very serious, I just wanted to get out of jail.”
When she got out of jail, Perrin tried to stay in drug court while continuing to engage with substances. But now, she’s grateful for the opportunity drug court has given her.
“Drug Court’s really helped me," she said. "It’s probably changed my life, it’s probably saved my life.”
The first drug court in the country began in 1989 in Miami-Dade county Florida. The county was finding that individuals would cycle through the court system and prison due to drug addiction. Allen County’s began in 1996.
Gull said the success of their clients isn't all down to her impact, though. She constantly gives credit to the case workers and the people that work day-to-day with clients in drug court to keep them on target and support them through the journey. Perrin said her case worker has helped her the most.
“Drug court, the thing about it that I really, really like, is that they’re encouraging," she said. "They encourage you, they reward you, they have your back.”
Her case worker has helped get her into classes, find somewhere to live and helped her secure money from Recovery Works, a state program that helps pay for treatment and recovery residence.
There are certain things that clients are still expected to handle on their own; like finding a job, paying for bills and securing transportation to their drug tests. Gull said this is because they want their clients to have “skin in the game” to help motivate them to continue the program and be successful.
Clients pay a $100 fee to get into drug court and then a $50 court fee once a month to remain in the program. Perrin says that every time she has to get a drug test, which could be three or four times a week, it’s $15.
Originally, Perrin also did not qualify for Recovery Works because she had an active case with Child Services. Her current halfway house costs $175 a week, and not all halfway houses take Recovery Works. This is all on top of normal expenses.
All of that, Perrin said, begins to add up.
Gull said all of that is part of the motivation to keep up with the program.
“I will tell you unequivocally no one has ever been revoked from drug court for not paying fees. Ever," she said.
She said they’re very clear with clients from the beginning. Their case managers will help them set up a budget, which, Gull says, a lot of their clients have never had to do before.
Gull also said they try to forgive a lot of fees and offer incentives that grant people money to pay fees. The court receives grants from other entities like the Alcohol Abuse Deterrent Program and the Christmas Bureau, as well as applying for grants from the state of Indiana.
Gull said it's important to prioritize other important payments like child support and restitution. She said she had one client who had to pay around $10,000 in restitution to his victims and, after those payments, they decided to have a conversation about forgiving his drug court fees.
“Because you made your victim whole and you’ve done a really good job in treatment and you are a role model and you are doing the things we want you to do," Gull said. "And you’re paying your own way in the community, and you’re paying your taxes. So, yeah, we’ll forgive your fees.”
The court offers other incentives for clients who hit certain milestones in their recovery. One is called the fishbowl. A client dips their hand into a container and pulls out a slip of paper with various prizes on them, things like fee waivers or a daily prize. The daily prize can be hygiene items, candy or children’s toys.
Many of the people in the program have children or are involved with the Department of Child Services and get supervised visitation. With the fishbowl, they can pick a toy to give their child when they see them next.
“The first guy that came up on fishbowl when we included the kids fishbowl, picked out a barbie for his daughter," Gull said. "I just wanted to hug him. I’m like way to go, you’re thinking about somebody else.”
For Dawson, he didn't get sober right away even after being put into the program.
Sentenced to jail on Dec. 18, 2018, that date became his sobriety date after years of addiction to both drugs and alcohol.
He graduated from the program in 2020 and met with his case manager one last time. She asked him what was next.
“I said, you know, I kind of think this is what I want to do with my life," he said. "And I said, I think I wanna work in recovery. And she said ‘are you being serious about that?’ And I was like yeah and she said ‘well, would you mind if I made a phone call for you?’”
Dawson’s case manager made a call to someone at Fort Wayne Recovery and he was hired within two weeks.
“So now my job is to help people find treatment, whether it’s with us or another facility,” he said.
Perrin is still working through her second phase of drug court and says she’s excited for the future as she continues to get healthy.
“I feel very hopeful," she said. "My connections with my family are growing, they trust me again. I’m really happy with myself, I haven’t been happy with myself in a long time. I actually have my happy back.”