Behind the curve

Back in the day, if you had asked Ruby Bouie about her drug of choice, she would have told you right out, "Whatever you got, honey." Booze, pot, ecstasy, acid, crank, coke, smoking it, shooting it, snorting it--she had been drinking and drugging since she was 16. Moving around the way her family did, she was always the outsider desperate to fit in. Drugs were her way of fitting in.

At 24, Bouie thought she was getting by just fine: She paid rent, owned a car, made good money as a waitress, and did large quantities of cocaine--quality stuff. "I didn't know any other way to get up and get functioning in the morning," she says. Sure, there was the occasional minor brush with the law--hot checks, outstanding tickets--but nothing heinous enough to keep her behind bars and away from her dealer, who was also her best friend.

In late December 1998, her boss grew tired of her showing up late or not at all and fired her. During the next two weeks, she spiraled out of control, staying "constantly fucked-up," she says. One night she was driving to a club off Cedar Springs to meet her dealer. A cop arrested her for the baggie of cocaine he found in plain view.

After making bond, she promised herself she'd change: She would use in moderation, only on weekends. But after a few days she was back at it, rationalizing that her case was no big deal, a state jail felony. She even got a call from some woman who said that being a first-time offender, Bouie was eligible for something called DIVERT court. If she signed onto the program with the 120 or so defendants who were already being monitored by the court, no felony case would be filed against her and no conviction would result if she completed the program.

"All I heard was that my felony would be erased from my record," she says. "I thought, 'I am going to con my way through this.'"

What she hadn't bargained for was a rigorous treatment program that combined nonstop therapy, drug testing, and sanctions. What she hadn't counted on was a streetwise judge hell-bent on changing her life.

Criminal District Judge John Creuzot has been volunteering his time for the last 31 months as the judge of DIVERT court (Dallas Initiative for diVersion and Expedited Rehabilitation and Treatment). Rather than being a neutral jurist, he acts more like a parent trying to get his kids to do right: He sets limits, he praises, he punishes. His court is part of what many legal experts consider a judicial revolution that views prison as a revolving door that just turns addicts into better criminals. What is needed instead are courts that supervise addicts, offering them intensive treatment with the carrot of avoiding prosecution altogether.

According to the Office of Justice Programs at American University, as of January, there were 440 drug-treatment courts in the United States, with another 279 in the planning stages. California has 108 drug courts either implemented or planned, Louisiana has 35, and Oklahoma has 27. In June, New York became the first state to require that nearly all drug-addicted nonviolent criminals receive treatment rather than jail time. Yet this "revolution" has failed to take seed in Texas, which has only five drug-treatment courts, one of which, the court in Fort Worth, recently shut its doors because of lack of funding.

Just why this state has fallen so dramatically behind the rest of the nation has as much to do with politics as it does with prejudice. But the Texas Legislature is now looking for ways to address this disparity, calling on interim committees to study the issue. What they may find is a growing number of addicts who have graduated from these drug-court programs: people who are clean and sober, people who are staying out of prison, people like Ruby Bouie.

The pattern was set for Ruby Bouie when she was 6 years old. She claims her father was a womanizer and an alcoholic who was fond of giving his four children "hot toddies" to put them to sleep. Emotionally distant parents left Bouie vulnerable to other family members who were also looking for love--or sex. The sexual abuse left much of her childhood a blur, though she does remember the day her father left and her foolish suicide attempt, hoping her overdose would could keep him there.

She was 13.

At 16, she moved to Pineville, Louisiana, where she excelled in school and sports but ran with a group of girls who liked to party. "You know that euphoric feeling that you search for your whole life," she says. "I got that when I had my first bottle of Boone's Farm Strawberry Hill."  

She spent the next 10 years chasing the next high, grabbing hits of self-worth with every line she snorted. When she moved to Dallas at 20, she went "buck wild"--the small-town girl hitting the city hard. "Whoever had the most drugs was who I was going home with," she says.

Small wonder that the drug evaluation ordered by Judge Creuzot recommended that she go into inpatient treatment, a 90-day commitment to Trinity Homeward Bound. Once a month, on Tuesday evenings, she would also attend DIVERT court in Frank Crowley and tell the judge of her progress, which was virtually nonexistent.

After 60 days, a bad attitude got her kicked out of Homeward Bound, but not the DIVERT program. "People aren't just going to come into this court and clean up over night," says Carol Todd, program manager for DIVERT court. "This judge holds on to people. He goes the second mile." If your drug test (entering addicts are tested twice weekly) comes up dirty, Creuzot might sanction you with a day in jail; if it happens a second time, you might get locked up for two days. With each new infraction comes more treatment, more scrutiny, more jail time. Accountability is immediate since the court meets every week in the Frank Crowley courthouse, which adjoins the county jail.

Creuzot gave Bouie another chance, placing her with an outpatient counselor this time. But she remained defiant: She missed court, missed her meetings, and relapsed worse than ever. "For the first time in my life I was doing heroin," Bouie says. "And it brought me to my knees."

She fled to California with a girlfriend, lived on the streets, shared needles with strangers, sold her body for dope. "I went down further than I have ever gone," she says. She didn't just hit bottom, she wallowed in it.

In May 1999, she nearly died of an overdose. Her girlfriend got so scared, she phoned Bouie's mother, who sent her daughter a one-way bus ticket home. The day after she returned, she reported to her DIVERT case manager, who immediately put her in the county jail. Again Judge Creuzot didn't give up on her. Instead, he placed her in a chemical-dependency tank within the jail. "This is a treatment of last resort for those who need more structure," Todd says. "Only about half the people who enter make the turn and stay in DIVERT."

For 60 days, it didn't look as though Bouie would be one of them. "I was very arrogant," she admits. "I thought I was different than the other women in the tank."

When Creuzot pulled her into DIVERT court, she begged him to let her out of the program. "I said, 'Go ahead, indict me, give me my felony conviction. I want out of this.' But he wouldn't let me go."

She doesn't remember how or when, but suddenly it hit her: She wasn't different from these other women, she was just like them--an obsessive-compulsive who was addicted to drugs, to drink, to chocolate, to sex. "I finally stopped fighting the program," she says.

Creuzot must have noticed. After three more months in the chemical-dependency tank, the judge released her from jail. "I stood before him, and he said he was proud of me," Bouie says. "I never got that kind of approval from my own father."

On October 1, Bouie entered Phase 2 of the DIVERT program, which, though less intensive, meant remaining drug-free in the free world. "A couple of days after I got out, I went to a club with some old friends," Bouie recalls. "I got physically sick just from being there. I had to decide right then and there: Did I want my old life back or something different?"

She chose something different: getting drug tested and going to DIVERT court once a week; meeting with her case manager twice a week; attending a 12-step program nearly every night of the week. "What helped keep me clean was the thought of going before that judge and telling him I came up dirty," Bouie says. "I couldn't disappoint the man. He loved me until I learned to love myself."

On July 27, after spending most of 18 months in the DIVERT program, Ruby Bouie graduated in a brief court ceremony. Her felony case was dismissed. As part of the ceremony, each graduate was given the chance to thank the judge.

"The only way I can thank Judge Creuzot is to stay clean and sober," she told the other five graduates in her class. "That way, this program will be a success."

Judge John Creuzot runs down a list of stats as though he were a sportscaster doing color commentary: 92 percent of the people who graduated from the program were crime-free and drug-free one year post-graduation; 74 percent of all offenders entering the program have either successfully completed it or are active participants. But it's the intangible benefits that seem harder to quantify.  

"If we are truly diverting people from the criminal justice system, we avoid the cost of confining them [about $20,000 a year per prisoner]," he says. "Our people are employed; they are paying taxes, regaining custody of their children. And what about all drug-free babies that are born to people in drug courts?"

Drug-treatment courts seem to have something for everyone: Liberals like them because they focus on treatment rather than punishment; conservatives like them because they offer swift accountability and a fiscally attractive alternative to incarceration.

"What we are talking about here is the most effective way of dealing with drug addiction," says retired Oakland, California, Judge Jeffrey Tauber, who now serves as director of the National Institute of Drug Courts, which offers training and technical support to drug courts. "The widespread acceptance of drug courts is a revolutionary change in our justice system."

Yet these courts have found the going hostile in Texas, where only four counties--Dallas, Travis, Montgomery, and Jefferson--currently maintain them, each using methods different from the others. "Texas has always been a law-and-order state," Carol Todd says. "Its answer to handling drug addicts has been to build more prisons."

Although former Democratic Gov. Ann Richards, a recovering alcholic herself, showed some interest in drug-treatment courts, after Gov. George W. Bush was elected, Republicans seemed more focused on having judges dispense justice, not social services. "Drug-treatment courts have always been too touchy-feely for this state," says Beaumont Judge Vi McGinnis, who presides over the oldest drug court in the state. "But now that the prisons are getting overcrowded again, the Legislature is suddenly interested."

Just this year different branches of state government have begun to educate themselves about drug-treatment courts. A spokesman in Lt. Gov. Rick Perry's office says Perry is "intrigued with the concept of expanding these courts." State Comptroller Carole Keeton Rylander has asked existing courts to present whatever statistics they have compiled so her research analysts can study their feasibility. And the Texas House Committee on Judicial Affairs is holding hearings to determine whether legislation that would fund drug-treatment courts statewide should be introduced in the next session.

While Creuzot is grateful for all the interest, he needs an infusion of legislative dollars fast. DIVERT court is currently supported by federal and county grants totaling $600,000, but these sources may not last. "We have to come up with funding to stabilize the court between now and 2001, or we are out of business like Tarrant County," Todd says.

On July 28, the House Judicial Affairs Committee will be in Dallas, taking testimony on drug-treatment courts, among other matters. Creuzot has asked Ruby Bouie to testify, and she has agreed to appear. Bouie already knows just what she's going to say: "If it wasn't for the DIVERT court intervening in my life, I'd either be using or dead."

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