By Sarah Colson
“I wrote the judge a letter, told him I was a drug addict and I asked him for help,” Nikita Stapleton said about what happened when she was charged, once again, with breaking probation last year. “Cupp (Judge Robert Cupp) considered it and gave me this chance at life. Now I’m here.”
“Here” is the graduation from the Day Reporting Center (DRC), where Stapleton and a colleague became the first female graduates Thursday evening. They’re part of an intensive probation program that aims to break the cycle of crime in the life of repeat offenders with addiction. Judges refer them to the DRC, which has more stringent requirements than standard probation.
The DRC is part of an $800,000 Targeted Community Crime Reduction Project (TCCRP) grant the federal Office of Criminal Justice Programs awarded to the City of Johnson City in April 2013. It’s administered by the Johnson City Police Department.
The grant, which serves the Mountain Home and downtown neighborhoods, required at least one program dealing directly with drug offenders, Director Becky Haas said. In the planning phase, partners learned more than 10 percent of the Mountain Home neighborhood’s adult population (just west of downtown) was on probation, which provided enough volume to start the DRC.
It’s modeled on a very successful Georgia program Haas said has reduced recidivism rates there to among the lowest in the country. Even though it’s intensive and not cheap, it costs much less than imprisonment.
The DRC has about 25 clients and includes three phases. Offenders are court-ordered to attend classes that are designed to be disciplined and get at the root issues of addiction so that they learn how to leave their lives of drugs and crime behind.
Johnson City was chosen as a pilot community for the program and now, Haas said, it is being considered for statewide implementation.
“I’m very proud of the community that we are able to pilot this program,” she said. “It was left up to the community to decide what to do with the money and this was a great choice.”
According to Haas, the rate for one person to be incarcerated in Tennessee is between $37-50 per day. For DRC, the rate is $12 per day. Haas added that even if someone fails the program, the amount of time they are in it still saves the state money. And, more importantly, even those who fail the program are impacted positively.
“Sometimes I hate whenever we’re asked about our numbers because you can’t capture everything in numbers,” Ashton Belcher, DRC program manager, said. “For the people that fail, they will still write us letters with nothing to gain and say, ‘Even though I failed, I still learned something and I’m still going to apply that to my life.’”
Still, most clients seem to be on the road to graduation. Every participant goes through the program at their own pace, usually anywhere between nine months and a year. The first two females to graduate spoke with News & Neighbor about the difference between their lives before and now. One of those graduates was mother and full-time worker, Stapleton. The other asked that her name not be used. For this story, she will be referred to as Jenny.
“The drugs were my best friend that turned into my ultimate enemy,” Jenny said about her life before DRC. “It led me down a road that broke me away from my family and every other good thing that I had in my life.”
Both the graduates agreed that one of the most difficult things about life before the program was not being able to pass a drug test to secure a job. That left them unable to provide for their children, which they said ultimately led to more stress, plunging them deeper into drug use.
“My life was a disaster,” Stapleton said. “I was a selfish monster.”
But anyone speaking with the two now would probably never guess their dark pasts.
“I’m in my kids’ lives now,” Stapleton said. “I was present physically before, but now I’m emotionally involved with my kids. They know I’m here for them.”
Belcher said the program works because of its ability to individualize treatment, therapy and even consequences. She said while some of the clients are terrified of going back to jail, that threat may not work for everyone. In those cases, the leaders can invite family members for a “family team meeting” to decide what consequences are appropriate or to understand issues that may be occurring at home.
“Sometimes Granny is way scarier than jail,” Belcher half-joked.
Learning discipline is tough, and Jenny and Stapleton said their happy ending (or beginning, really) came with a lot of hard work and self-reflection.
“There have been times when I have been personally asked to do certain things that I’ve felt that I couldn’t do and was put under a lot of pressure,” Jenny, who has been sober for more than a year, said. “But I did it and I did it without using (drugs).”
Stapleton said one of her most difficult moments was when she failed a drug test at the beginning of the program. On Aug. 7, she will celebrate a year of sobriety.
“I realized that this is it,” she said. “It’s been a lot of stress on us about everything. But you know what? Life is stress. That’s all it is. They pushed me and everybody in here to the point of success. They want you to succeed or break. I succeeded. I’m very appreciative of these people for my new life.”
Jenny and Stapleton said a couple of times they watched as one of their classmates was escorted out in hand-cuffs and shackles because of a failed drug test or other breach of probation.
“That was a reality check,” Jenny said. “It keeps you on your toes and reminds you that every day is a blessing. This is an opportunity. This is a second chance.”
Both of the graduates had mixed emotions about leaving DRC. To them, the other clients, and especially the staff, have formed a strong bond.
Jenny said, “Graduating the program is kind of sad. They’ve become my family. The staff all work together to form this one, strong, solid unit. They make it work and I feel accomplished. But I also feel like I’m leaving my family.”
Still, the future looks bright for the pair. Stapleton hopes to go to school to become a nurse and Jenny is going back to school at ETSU. She’s studying criminal justice.
“When I got charged a few years ago I started reading criminal law books,” Jenny said, laughing. “That’s what inspired me to change my major. Who knows? Maybe I’ll even be the next probation officer here.”
Belcher said she was proud of the graduates and hopes the community will continue to support the program in the future. Now that the program is up and running, she’s anxious about the grant that runs out in March. Belcher is appreciative of the community partners that have supported them. Some of those partners include Frontier Health, Tennessee Department of Corrections, Alternative Community Corrections Program, Johnson City Police Department, Goodwill of Tenneva Area, East Tennessee State University Ph.D. student interns and the U.T. Extension Program.
“In the big scheme of things, the people who are treatable, people who can heal and can change . . . It’s not necessarily that they deserve the opportunity, but if it’s cheaper and we can change them, then why not try that?” Belcher said. “We’ve put people in jail and prison and yes, sometimes they get a lot of resources in prison. But we’ve proven that it does not work. So now we’re doing something different.
If we don’t try to fix these people, they’re going to get out of prison or jail and they’re going to be in the exact same position that they’re in now.”
For Jenny, the idea of DRC not existing is “terrifying.”
“This program needs to continue,” she said. “It is definitely working. I know what it did for me. It really is the difference between life and death for some people.”
To learn more about DRC, email Haas at email@example.com or visit fthra.org/day-reporting-center.