The Carson City misdemeanor treatment court had its first participant graduate Thursday morning.
The misdemeanor treatment court was created in July 2015 by Justice Court Judge Thomas Armstrong to help provide offenders, ages 18-25, with addiction treatment at the misdemeanor level.
“When I am on the (misdemeanor) bench I see so many people who are in trouble, particularly young people with serious addiction issues,” Armstrong said last July. “When I first started it was a lot of opium/heroin addicts who were 18, 19, 20 years old and we have been seeing a lot of meth coming back and without intervention I see their lives progressing negatively, the criminality progressing, and I thought it would be good to do some intervening steps at this level.”
The program works on helping addicts through counseling and check-ins to keep them on a positive and healthy path toward sobriety.
“We help provide the tools for people to get and stay sober,” Armstrong said. “And they know if they do relapse what to do to get back on track because you don’t have to go all the way to the bottom, you can self correct and know you have those resources to help you and that is what’s important.”
The treatment program is utilized as an incentive — offender can go through the treatment program and they may be able to reduce the time on their sentence while they are out on bond.
Now, more than a year later, the 50-person program had its first graduate.
“I am very proud of the work they have done,” Armstrong said. “When I took this job I knew we needed something to help addicts early on in the system… and now we are changing lives and that is priceless. Whatever changes we can make is worth it.”
“I think that a lot of what we see in the courts are people who make poor decisions and decisions that impact their lives and the lives of the people around them, their action have a ripple effect on families and on a larger scale the community and if we implement programs like this we can create better lives.”
Twenty three-year-old Joanna Shirey-Warthan had battled drug addiction since a young age and tried many times to get clean without success.
“The misdemeanor court has completely changed my life; this program has taught me what it takes to be a productive member of society,” Shirey-Warthan said. “…If it was not for this program, I would be in jail or dead. There was a time in my life where I was ashamed and most days I just wanted to give up but this program helped me become more resilient. The more I worked through the program things in my past became farther away but still serves as a reminder for the path I do not want my life to go down again.”
She has now stayed clean for a year and a half and plans to keep that going. She said completing the treatment program has benefited her immensely in the past year.
“I got caught up in it and I had times where I would get clean but nothing stuck,” Shirey-Warthan said. “I am going to take what they taught me and I want it this time. I am so thankful for their tough love because I needed to be accountable and it is good because I don’t want to give up my clean time.”
Shirey-Warthan was honored Thursday during the misdemeanor treatment court and given a certificate of completion with a memento to remind her of her successes.
“I am so excited (to complete the program) I am ready for a new chapter in my life and to move forward,” Shirey-Warthan said. “I am just going to keep doing what we learned... it has been a crazy journey and I am thankful for the opportunity because I didn’t even imagine I would get this far in life and accomplish this much.”
And, like Armstrong predicted, the program provides a positive ripple effect, impacting not only the graduate but those around them as well.
“Progressing through the program I have been able to build a good support system which at first seemed impossible due to the bridges I burned,” Shirey-Warthan said. “I learned the hard way that not just anyone can be in your support group and people who you thought were your friends, are not. My family is now willing to help me since they have seen the positive changes I have made for me and my three-year old son.”
Armstrong said it’s the participants who do all the work, and while Shirey-Warthan is a great example of how the program can succeed, not everyone was able to successfully complete the treatment program.
Shirey-Warthan said those struggling through the program should just take it one day at a time.
“The hardest thing is thinking about the future, I just had to take it one day at a time so it didn’t seem so hard,” Shirey-Warthan said. “Don’t think about tomorrow or two days from now, just focus on getting through today. You just have to surrender, keep it simple and realize that you have to do what you have to do.”
This program wouldn’t have been possible without the community partners involved, Armstrong said. Organizations such as the District Attorney’s Office, Carson City Community Counseling, Department of Alternative Sentencing, the public defender’s office and the different courts were all involved in helping run and improve the program.
“This takes a big interest and commitment from everyone and everyone has just been great,” Armstrong said.
And through it all, Armstrong said he can’t wait to continue the steady stream of graduates from the program over the next few months, including Joanna who he hopes will provide inspiration for others in the program.
“We are so proud of the work Joanna has done, it is a hard program for a lot of people but it is good to see someone succeed,” Armstrong said. “…I can’t tell you how thrilled I am to see that happen. I am most proud of the benefits to our community because it is important to hold people accountable but if we can do that and make a positive change, then that’s great.”
Now that the program’s first year has come and gone, Armstrong is looking to improve the program to provide more resources and help for the participants above the counseling and check-ins. He said the next step they are looking towards is working with a sober or transitional living facility for participants to provide a sober and safe residence to better resist relapse.
“It is our number one need to take this to the next level,” Armstrong said. “We want to establish a safe place for sobriety when they are at a vulnerable state. We hate to lose people because they are in a vulnerable state and don’t have that stability they need.”
The treatment court also wants to expand to include job and internship training, GED help and advanced education.
“We don’t want to be a basic program, we want to be elite,” Armstrong said.