NEW PORT RICHEY — For Judge Shawn Crane, presiding over Pasco County’s Adult Drug Court is a "wonderful challenge."
The 6th Judicial Circuit Court judge leads the drug court, a treatment and rehabilitation program for non-violent, felony drug offenders. The court-supervised program offers an alternative to time behind bars, with support and treatment for substance abuse and mental health issues.
On his days in court, Crane talks at length to people in all stages of the program. He doles out encouragement, asks about new jobs and discusses family issues.
"We are singing your praises," Crane told one woman earlier this month. "Think about what you’ve accomplished. This is a lot to be proud of."
With others, Crane is stern.
"At some point now you need to say, ‘This is it,’ " Crane told a man struggling through the program.
In many places, a first-time felony drug conviction can lead to years in prison. In Pasco County, it can lead to rehabilitation.
From the bench, Crane sees an opportunity to change lives and he’s "thankful for it everyday." He knows that what his court does — treating addiction — is difficult for everyone involved.
"I am humbled by how hard people work trying to reach their sobriety and maintain their sobriety through their recovery," Crane said.
The court’s goal is to improve their quality of life, break the cycle of addiction and reduce how often criminals re-offend. The hope is that this will lead to reduced crime and lowered costs for the criminal justice system, according to the court’s mission statement.
Pasco County’s drug rehabilitation program began in 2007. It has enrolled and graduated hundreds of participants — who otherwise would be inmates — in the years since.
People charged with non-violent, drug-related felonies are screened by the state attorney’s office. Crane makes the ultimate decision on who gets into drug court. In 2016, 280 people joined the program. In 2015, 264 people joined.
In 2017, 140 participants graduated from drug court, about 50 percent of the class, according to a spokesperson with the 6th Judicial Circuit.
The others violated probation, failed to participate or voluntarily withdrew, which earned them a transfer to another felony division. Others drew new charges or died.
Crane’s six-person team includes members from the public defender’s office, the state attorney’s office and WestCare, a non-profit organization that provides substance abuse and mental health treatment.
The team also has a probation officer, a court administrator and a disposition specialist, who matches clients with treatment programs.
In 2017, the court received $325,000 of a three year $975,000 grant from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration for treatment and family-support services.
The drug court also gets about $240,000 from the county and $150,000 from the state.
People who complete the program have gained new jobs, returned to universities and rebuilt relationships lost to addictions. Successful graduation can mean dismissal of the original charge.
It’s a treatment-based approach that starts with a defendant going through a substance-abuse assessment. Then treatment providers make recommendations for the defendant.
Participants receive substance-abuse treatment, with aftercare and court compliance monitoring, such as random, frequent check-ins and urine analysis tests.
They appear in court every 30 to 45 days. Based on their successes or setbacks, drug court judges reward or penalize them.
In 2013, on Shari Albright’s first day in drug court, her lawyer told her she needed help for her 12-year prescription medication addiction. It started when she took drugs to cope with postpartum depression.
"My intention was to get (court) behind me so I could get my name cleared and that I could go on with my life and go back to what I was doing," Albright, 47, said. "I didn’t think that I needed it."
Albright’s felony drug charge was dismissed by Crane after nearly two years, more than 90 nights in jail, and both inpatient and outpatient substance-abuse treatment. Albright graduated from drug court in 2015.
"I never felt so grateful," she said. "There isn’t a day that goes by that there isn’t some sort of gratitude in my heart for this program. This really changed the trajectory of my life."
"(Crane) believed in me when no one else did," Albright said.
The program addresses the factors that cause substance abuse and criminal behavior.
"We can’t ignore (mental health)," Crane said. "We need to treat the root cause of this and address that to really move forward."
Crane’s team places participants with mental health counselors.
"They gotta want to do it," Crane said. "I can encourage, but unless you reach that point in your life where you’re willing to accept the help, then there’s not much I can do."
Crane has presided over Pasco’s drug court since 2010.
"The difference is to not just merely be focused on the incarceration of people but on the opportunity to help those folks get back in our community and be good members of our community as well as their families and everything else," he said.
Contact TyLisa C. Johnson at [email protected] Follow @tylisajohnson.