The odds were stacked against Lesley Ingram.
The 29-year-old, addicted to crystal meth and alcohol, faced a handful of serious charges in Jefferson County’s 1st Judicial District.
Ingram, unemployed and without prospects, was nonetheless given an unexpected second chance — a transfer to the newly established Jefferson County Recovery Court, a program designed to help struggling addicts overcome abusive habits and give back to the community.
But Ingram faltered. She failed drug tests and skipped routine appointments with therapists and caseworkers. She was sent to jail but ultimately was not removed from the budding program.
More than a year into Recovery Court, Ingram was still wavering, but something changed. Her mother died. Months later, both of her grandmothers also passed away.
On Aug. 12, Ingram, now 31, stood before Judge Tamara S. Russell, her eyes welling with tears and her voice shaky.
Family members and friends stood among more than 70 people packed into the courtroom, each silent, listening as the judge recounted the young woman’s missteps.
Then Russell noted Ingram’s 318 days of sobriety, recent success at work and a community-service project she established.
Rather than a sentence, Russell dismissed the pending charges. She stepped down from her bench, walked toward Ingram and hugged her. The audience, circulating a half-dozen tissue boxes, broke into cheers and applause.
Grinning, Russell presented the young woman with two framed photographs, one highlighting the person she is becoming and other showing from where she came. One was a recent glamour shot in which Ingram was dressed and made up to resemble Marilyn Monroe. The latter was her booking photo from the Jefferson County jail.
“She’s taught me a lot about patience, a lot about second chances,” Russell said to the attendees. Then, addressing Ingram personally: “It’s been a pleasure just watching you gather all your strength.”
Eight success stories
In its two years, the Recovery Court has graduated eight former defendants, each having attained sobriety and given back to the community in their own ways, part of the “restorative justice” component of the curriculum. In response, the court cleared the defendants of charges.
Though there are nearly 20 similar drug courts in Colorado, Jeffco’s is the only one to include a community service component.
At the Aug. 12 hearings, three participants graduated — the most the program has seen in a single session.
“I hated every moment of it for the first year,” said Ingram, who since joining the program has become the manager of a Honey Baked Ham store and created a program to donate expired but salvageable hams to homeless shelters. “But it’s made me a stronger person. It saved my life.”
Judges refer prospective participants to the voluntary program in lieu of immediate sentencing. A six-member panel then decides if a defendant is a good fit for Recovery Court.
The program includes four steps through which participants ascend before graduating. Urine-analysis tests are mandatory, as are almost-daily meetings with caseworkers and therapists, and participants are expected to meet every Friday afternoon in Russell’s courtroom.
Those who have no documented slip-ups end up on the court’s “rocket docket,” meaning Russell hears their cases first. Toward the end of the exhausting schedule are those who did not fare as well.
‘A big day’
On Aug. 19, about 35 names crowd the rocket docket alone.
“All right, folks, big day,” Russell said as she entered the courtroom. “I don’t remember the last time we had this many people moving phases. And as you can see on the rocket docket, we have a lot of people at 100 percent.”
Unlike most criminal proceedings, Recovery Court is unusually informal.
Among the 70 participants in attendance, many sit with arms around their partners. A few young children sit in laps, playing with toys or grasping sippy-cups. As Russell calls the lengthy roll, some of the defendants enthusiastically greet her.
Before cases proceed, caseworkers draw a name out of a hat for a prize, a King Soopers gift card. The participants sit with fingers crossed, some chanting hopefully, “Pick me. Pick me.”
The short hearings progress quickly. For every participant moving up a level, Russell presents a certificate and a hug.
More than three hours later, few people dot the courtroom benches.
A young mother sits before Russell. She admits using crystal meth — the most commonly abused drug, largely due to its availability and low street price — once during the previous weekend.
Glancing over her reading glasses and resting her head in her hand, Russell casts doubt on the assertion that the woman used the drug only once. She points to recent drug tests. Reluctantly, the woman admits using meth at least four days during the week.
The woman’s speech becomes slightly frantic, and she points to a bad living situation at home. The father of her children doesn’t let her come home if she smokes meth, so she stays away for days at a time.
Russell responds, her voice sympathetic.
“It seems to me that if you were sober, you’d be able to see your kids more, and things would be better at home,” Russell said. “You’re not honoring your commitments to the program. … I fear that you don’t understand how important this is, not only to your sobriety, but to your freedom.”
She orders the woman to the front of the courtroom, where a deputy awaits with handcuffs.
“I have to sanction you today. … I’m going to give you three days in jail for it,” Russell said. “You seem sad, and that’s OK. … I hate seeing you like this.”
A man in his late 30s follows in the next case. He too claims having used meth once over the last week. Russell again points to his drug test results, drawing out the truth. Reluctantly, he admits using the drug nearly every day.
In addition, he missed several appointments during the week. At the recommendation of caseworkers, Russell gives him four days in jail.
“You seem to be kind of down. … I want you to have every opportunity to succeed,” she said, as a deputy begins to escort the man out of the courtroom. “Come on. Let’s start again.”
‘Things you don’t learn in law school’
Though Russell has presided over the Recovery Court for its two years, another judge, M.J. Menendez, created the program. However, Menendez left the bench after the Recovery Court’s first day to pursue a job with the U.S. Attorney’s Office, leaving the nascent program without a judge.
“I’d be a liar if I told you that this program wasn’t life changing,” Russell said, pointing to her own transformation. “I’ve had to stop and look at the little things along the way. … A lot of these folks have never had anybody say, ‘Good job.’ ”
Along with the high points, such as Ingram’s tearful graduation, there have been a few lows, she said.
In one instance, a single mother had violated the program’s terms, and Russell sentenced her to a short jail term. The mother had brought her infant child to court, and no friends or family accompanied her. While protective service workers were en route to the court, Russell sat and watched the baby.
“This place was empty, and I was standing here holding this woman’s 2-week-old baby,” she said. “Those are the things that you don’t learn in law school.”
But the positive elements — the informal nature of the court, the camaraderie participants develop with one another — outweigh the difficult parts of the job.
“Whatever challenges I’ve had in my life are nothing compared to what these folks have had,” Russell said. “When they cry because they’ve had four weeks of sobriety, it’s humbling.”
Even if participants slip up and fail a drug test, they may not necessarily be sent to jail the following Friday. Russell holds honesty and reliable attendance at appointments above relapse in what is often an agonizing recovery process.
“You have to have some sort of rapport with the folks in the courtroom, because I’m doing something that is completely counterintuitive, which is to be honest about when they used,” Russell said. “We have to have a bit of informality. We call them by their first names. … I expect them to tell me things that they don’t tell their own family.”
An alternative to prison
Most of the defendants in the program would otherwise be facing prison sentences. And the approach of assisted rehabilitation rather than punitive repercussion seems to be working, though the court has not decided how it defines success.
Since Recover Court is typically an 18-month program, most people who have entered it have yet to graduate.
“I don’t know what success is yet. … But we celebrate every little success along the way,” Russell said. “This is completely not business as usual. … I in fact never hug, except when they graduate.”
For Ingram, the idea of success is clear. Honoring the memories of her mother and grandmothers, she’s picking up the pieces of her life and isn’t making excuses anymore. She plans to go back to school to become a nurse.
“I kept going, for them and for myself. … I see a future. I want to go to school,” she said. “For once in my life, I’m happy.”