Oakland County Circuit Court Focuses on Mental Health, Substance Abuse

Program treats participants like ‘more than a number’

Standing before the crowd at the 50th commencement ceremony for Oakland County Circuit Court’s Adult Treatment Court, Natasha Taylor recounts the events that led her to the podium. The Commissioners Auditorium falls silent as she reads from a speech, detailing her issues with alcohol and multiple arrests, and how she worked through the program that helped her turn things around.

The 36-year-old Southfield resident, who is a manager of a call center in Detroit, carries herself with a sense of confidence at the early April ceremony that’s often conveyed by somebody who knows the power of their story and how differently things could have turned out had they not accepted help when they needed it.

In 2014, she blew more than three times the legal blood alcohol concentration limit and was charged with operating a vehicle while intoxicated. Coming off an alcohol-induced blackout, the only moments she remembers prior to arraignment are being fingerprinted and crying a lot.

“When you start to have blackouts, you have a problem,” Taylor says. “That was an eye-opener.”

The incident was her fourth alcohol-related charge, and she began to mentally prepare for prison. But her lawyer presented her with ATC, a four-phase intervention system for nonviolent felony offenders, as an alternative. It wasn’t a get-out-of-jail-free card, but, if she was willing to admit she did have a problem with alcohol, she could get the treatment she needed.

Taylor was sentenced to the program by a judge, and she quickly learned that ATC wasn’t easy. Her life changed as she added 420 community service hours, group counseling and Alcoholics Anonymous, and random drug tests to her schedule. Average program lengths range from 12 to 20 months.

“It’s like probation boot camp,” says Taylor, who, along with other participants, had to undergo judicial and community supervision and substance abuse treatment, as well as secure employment and proper housing. “It’s almost like you’re a number in normal probation. With ATC, they show an interest in you,” she says.

Those who don’t complete the required tasks set by the program, which is overseen by a panel of probation officers, mental health and addiction specialists, and legal experts, can face court-mandated sanctions or dismissal from ATC. Despite the intensive nature of the Oakland County Circuit Court’s program, Taylor stuck it out.

During her time in the program she explored the emotional situations that trigger her desire to drink, such as the loss of her father who passed away in 2009. After he died, she withdrew from her church and meditation practices and began using alcohol to self-medicate.

“[ATC helps] you find out what the underlying issue is, what causes you to do the things you do and make the choices that you make,” says Taylor, who hopes to be a good example for her two sons. “My ‘no’ muscle is strong, and I can identify it.”

Adult drug court programs, like the one Taylor graduated from, have quietly become part of the justice system across the U.S. and Michigan. According to a Michigan Problem Solving Courts’ summary, these programs were available to 97 percent of Michigan’s population from 2015-16.

During that time, 62 percent of participants statewide successfully completed adult drug court programs, which are operated with county and state funding. On top of that, only 6 percent of participants received a new conviction within two years of graduating from the programs. ATC is also less expensive: On average, the program costs $5,000 for each participant — an annual savings of $29,000 to $37,000 per participant compared with housing an inmate in the jail or prison systems.

“It’s obviously a huge savings,” says Judge Shalina Kumar, who has overseen the women’s side of Oakland County Circuit Court ATC since 2015. “Treatment is always a better option than incarceration for the participants so at least they have a chance to get their underlying conditions treated.”

Ken Briggs, the administrator of program relations and business development for addiction treatment center Meridian Health Services, has seen this approach work.

The addiction specialist also sits on the panel for Oakland County Circuit Court ATC. As a member of the panel, he helps participants — who may have addictions to alcohol, heroin, prescription pills, or more — connect with local organizations for detox and residential resources.

“Adult Treatment Court gives you more structure, more professionals that are kind of at your beck and call to provide you with services and get you ready for the world,” says Briggs, who also cites the overdose rate as a reason to pursue alternatives to incarceration. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, there were nearly 2,000 drug-related deaths in the state of Michigan in 2015.

“We can’t prison our way out of this,” he says. “You’ve got to do more prominent forms of care.”

The Oakland County Circuit Court program, which started in 2001, also offers a track that treats mental health issues simultaneously with substance abuse problems. From 2015 to 2016, nearly 50 percent of participants in Michigan’s mental health courts completed their program, and 97 percent reported improved mental health and quality of life.

“Those are huge numbers compared to not having access to any of this and going back into the community as the same old status quo,” says Heather Willis, a community liaison for Pontiac-based mental health service Common Ground who serves on the Oakland County Circuit Court ATC panel. Some of the participants she works with may have a diagnosis of depression, developmental disabilities, bipolar disorder, or more.

Willis says the mental health component of ATC, which links participants to group and individual counseling as well as assistance with securing prescription medication while in jail, can even help those who don’t have a mental health diagnosis.

Christian Isaacs, another graduate from the 50th ceremony who has been sober from alcohol since August 2015 and preferred not to use his real name, met with Willis eight times during the program despite not being assigned to the mental health track.

“I thought, ‘Hey, I’ve got all these resources for ATC to help me battle with this addiction … then let me see what it’s all about,’” he says.

Throughout their sessions, the 45-year-old explored how things like his relationships and helping his father through his cancer diagnosis led him to alcohol addiction. The mental health component, along with attending 12-step programs, are among the things that helped him complete ATC in 13 months.

Today, now that he’s clean, he’s using his newfound energy to play catch or ride hover boards with his kids after school.

“I never say never, but I will never drink again,” Isaacs says. “I’m not being cliché. I firmly believe that if I pick up another drink then I will kill myself, I will die. From a bad accident, alcohol poisoning, whatever. And it’s not an option for me; I’ve got too much to live for.”

Along with hoping that the positive influence ATC has had on his life will continue to manifest, Isaacs, as well as professionals who work for the Oakland County Circuit Court program, would like to see more people with substance abuse issues reap the program’s benefits.

“We’re constantly working to improve, trying to identify needs and create solutions to whatever gaps we see by adding services or forging new relationships with community partners, [and] trying to be more inclusive,” Willis says.

But, for now, what may make the most immediate difference in people’s lives are the little things: the ability to command the room when sharing your story or being there for your kids.

“I cherish [ATC] because it’s led me to the path I’m going now,” Isaacs says. “I have a clarity of mind … I’m more focused; I’m more dedicated; I’m more consistent; I’m more reliable. I’m now just becoming who I am.”