At age 17, Megan Welsh got hooked on painkillers, which led to her heroin addiction. She became homeless and lost custody of her two children. Four years ago, after a fight with the alcoholic father of her children, she violated her probation by kicking out a police car door window.
Welsh was charged with malicious mischief and given a choice: spend 10 years in prison or go to drug court, an intensive rehabilitation program that takes three to five years. She chose drug court.
Fifth Circuit Drug Court Coordinator Michael Ming, knowing the depth of her addiction, told Welsh that she would not make it a month in the program.
He was wrong.
Welsh was one of seven participants to graduate from the first ever Fifth Circuit Court Judicial Drug Court at the Choctaw County Courthouse last November. A year later, she has regained custody of her children, works as a sous chef in Kosciusko, and is back in school pursuing a degree in social work.
“I’ve learned to deal with life on life’s terms,” said Welsh, who recently celebrated four years in recovery. “Even some of my worst days clean are better than some of my best days high.”
The Fifth Circuit was the last in the state to adopt a drug court program in 2013. It’s available to people charged with drug possession and non-violent property crimes. Today the program has grown to serve 63 recovering addicts.
But at first, there were skeptics.
Judge Joseph Loper, one of two Fifth Circuit judges overseeing drug court, thought it sounded too good to be true. He worried about scarce financial and human resources, and he thought addicts could kick their habits alone. Stories like Welsh’s changed his mind.
“I’ve been very pleasantly surprised,” Loper said. “I love to be proved wrong, and I’ve seen people that I absolutely didn’t think had any chance in the world to succeed but they have.”
Loper said drug court has been able to apply best practices from all the other circuits that pioneered the program. The court recently renovated its offices and hopes to expand with more staff and an on-site drug-testing lab.
It costs roughly $3,000 to treat an offender in drug court for a year, compared with around $20,000 to keep an inmate in the state prison at Parchman.
“It’s a lot of bang for the buck,” Loper said.
For now, Loper and Ming, a former probation and parole officer, work closely with Field Agent Mike Perrigan to run drug court. Together, Ming and Perrigan have more than 55 years of law enforcement experience.
Ming said many drug court participants began as marijuana smokers before becoming addicted to other drugs. Participants are commonly abusing methamphetamines and opiods by the time they reach them.
“Someone that smokes marijuana once a month, in my opinion, does not have an addiction problem, so we wouldn’t put them in the program,” Ming said. “To me, an addiction problem is something done on a weekly basis. You’ve become dependent on it.”
Ming and Perrigan first screen drug court applicants to ensure that they’re true addicts. Then they send them to a rehabilitation center to detox, which can take anywhere from 30 to 120 days. Participants must stay sober, attend at least two Alcoholics Anonymous or Narcotics Anonymous meetings per week, attend drug court sessions weekly, take random drug tests, hold down a job, pay their court fees and make a 10 p.m. curfew. Those who fail out of court face the maximum sentence for their crimes.
Welsh said the potential consequences motivated her.
“I was either going to fall in line or go to prison,” she said.
Kalicia Garrett, a 30-year-old participant in drug court who began in 2014, said the program is too long and that once-a-week meetings are too frequent.
But Loper and Ming said that’s the only way to achieve long-term recovery.
“They didn’t get to being a problem overnight, and they’re not going to be cured overnight,” Loper said.
Ming and Perrigan give participants their phone numbers and say their doors are always open to talk, 24/7.
“In all my years doing this, I’ve learned that all they need to know is that somebody cares, that they’re not in this world by themselves,” Perrigan said.
The drug court, which serves seven counties, is partially funded by Mississippi’s Administrative Office of Courts, which provides $100,000 each fiscal year. The court generates an additional $25,000 by charging participant fees. Participants pay $75 a month, along with any treatment and restitution costs. None of the funding comes from local taxes.
The fees not only support the program, but also give participants an incentive to get through it.
“We make them responsible,” Ming said. “They have to pay for their treatment.”
Drug court links participants with resources to help them find jobs, get a GED, a driver’s license, and pay child support.
“It worked for me,” Welsh said. “It works for the people that want it to work. They show you which direction to go but you have to put in the footwork.”
But it doesn’t always work.
Judge Loper remembered a day in court when a man told him that he’d rather go back to jail than have someone tell him when he can or cannot drink a beer.
Loper said that he’s able to force someone into the drug court but never does because an unwilling participant would fail.
“If they don’t want to change their behavior, it’s a waste of time,” he said.
Welsh’s class originally included 11 participants; four either dropped out or were removed for failing to meet requirements. But the Fifth Circuit Drug Court has never turned anyone away that wants to be a part of the program and is legally eligible.
“It’s not about the numbers to me,” Ming said. “It’s about the number of people I can get in the program and change their lives.” He also said their program is strict.
Tracking people after they graduate is tough. Ming said he only knows of one participant who wound up arrested, on a charge for selling ecstasy, after graduating from the program.
He’s more likely to see successful graduates around town. He remembers walking out of his doctor’s office in Louisville and watching an 18-wheeler come to a traffic-stopping halt. The driver leapt out, shook Ming’s hand, and told him he saved his life.
Ming, Loper and Perrigan said that’s the best part of the job.
“There’s nothing that gives me more satisfaction than helping someone,” Perrigan said. “It makes me so proud to see them and think, ‘Well, at least there’s one that I helped.’”
At its core, he said, drug court is simply about learning how to live a normal life.
Welsh agreed. She doesn’t have grand goals. She just wants to be emotionally and financially stable. She takes things one day at a time.
Welsh started drug court, Ming told her that if she graduated, he would eat his words and apologize in front of everyone for doubting her commitment. At her graduation ceremony, she brought him a cake she baked. The frosting on top spelled out “your words.”
It was heartfelt. “If I hadn’t gone to drug court I’d be dead or in jail,” she said.
“I will always be an addict,” Welsh said. “But from drug court, I’ve learned coping skills where I don’t have to get high.”