A New Day in Drug Court

July 6, 2006 -- -- Every Friday, 47-year-old Ron Gilbert decides the fate of dozens of hard-core addicts who come before his drug court in Rancho Cucamonga, Calif. They're facing time behind bars for everything from drug possession to burglary. He is their last chance to avoid jail.

The goal of Gilbert's drug court is to divert offenders out of the criminal justice system and into a recovery program where they can stay clean and sober. Treatment rather than punishment.

"A pure addict, what are we going to punish them for? They have a disease. You punish a disease?" Gilbert says. "You have cancer, am I going to punish you because you have cancer? Addiction is a disease. So, by punishing a disease you don't help them one bit. We just create more people in jail that you and I are paying for that are getting nothing."

Luckily for the addicts struggling with substance abuse, Gilbert has an enlightened view of those who face him in the defendant's dock.

"When I was a public defender, one of the things that I did ... with my clients, I communicated at least on a level that I felt they could understand me," Gilbert said. "I talked their language. I never lost that. In this environment, that works for me."

Hard and Easy Choices

Before court convenes, probation officers, attorneys and drug counselors discuss each case with Gilbert. The court accepts only 60 people at a time (there is a waiting list), and the staff come to know the offenders personally.

Beyond the court, Gilbert has had personal experience with addiction -- he helped a brother-in-law and a cousin struggle through legal and medical issues related to substance abuse.

"I've got some experience, as most people do," Gilbert said.

The court's program requires an 18-month commitment to stay clean of drugs and alcohol -- addicts are subject to random urine screening and must show up for court dates. They are required to attend group therapy and participate in 12-step programs like Alcholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous.

"If you had the choice of going to jail and staying in jail for a year and going to a program where you go five days a week and get to go home and see your family and get to work, that's a no brainer," said Nick Nardone, a drug counselor at the Matrix Institute.

Nardone, who like many counselors is a "recovering addict" himself -- by definition, addicts are never "cured"-- and has worked with Gilbert's drug court for five years. He has been sober for 22 years.

"Even if they come in here with attitude, 'This is a joke I'm not gonna do it,' at least they come in here," he says.

To many, the option of the treatment program is an easy choice. But nearly 80 percent of Gilbert's cases involve methamphetamine abusers -- a powerfully addictive substance. And while about two-thirds of the defendants who enter Gilbert's drug court complete 18 months of sobriety, 20 out the 60 cases Gilbert oversees at any one time end up back in the system..

"You have to imagine how powerful that must be for someone in their mind to logically think this thing through and decide they're going to use even though the consequences are going to be whatever they're going to be," Gilbert said.

The Tools to Succeed

It's the power of drugs that brought 28-year-old Matt Natoli, a 12-year meth user or "tweaker" and convicted dealer, to Ron Gilbert.

"When I came in front of Judge Gilbert my biggest thing was here's a chance that someone's actually going to give me to get me clean," Natoli said. "Since '97 I've only known the life of drugs and a dealer. That's all I've known."

Matt was clean for nearly a year -- then he relapsed and skipped court. A few days later he turned himself in. Gilbert gave him two weeks in jail.

"I do get upset when people fail," Gilbert said. "I don't like seeing anyone fail. It's not me. It's not my staff. It's them. And I don't like to see them fail."

There are some 1,600 different drug courts operating nationwide and they vary in their programs and requirements depending on local jurisdictions. But all have a similar goal -- to ease the clogging of the court system by drug addicts facing crimes related to substance abuse. Twenty thousand addicts graduate from drug courts every year, but more than 3,000 of them relapse, are arrested and charged with a felony within two years, according to statistics compiled by the National Association of Drug Court Professionals.

But the outcomes, in Gilbert's eyes, belong to the people who arrive in his court -- whether the outcome is failure or success.

"I have a pat answer and that is that I didn't do anything," Gilbert said. "You did it. All I did was give you some tools, some education -- gave you and opportunity. You made it happen."