Tennessee Recovery Court Provides Drug Addicts An Alternative To Jail

Jan 4, 2017
Originally published on January 4, 2017 7:54 pm

When Donald Trump won the presidential election, he made a pledge to every citizen: that he would be president for all Americans. In the weeks before Trump's inauguration, we're going to hear about some of the communities that make up this nation, from the people who know them best, in our series Finding America.

In Roane County, Tenn., the legal and personal costs of the opioid epidemic collide at the county courthouse.

As an assistant to the local prosecutor, Charlene Hipsher helped launch a special "recovery court" with the goal of getting drug addicts into treatment instead of jail.

"Roane County is such a beautiful part of the country, with lush mountains and beautiful rivers," Hipsher says. "But we do have a terrible problem here, and it's opiate addiction."

Hipsher says recovery court is "intensive supervision and treatment" that provides addicts an alternative to a jail cell and the opportunity to overcome their addiction. Her colleague Dennis Humphrey, general sessions court judge and recovery court judge, says they've found that more jail does not work.

"It does not remedy the problem," he says, "but something in the nature of a drug court does get to the heart of their problem, try to remedy that, try to work with them, to show them that we do care about what's happening."

Use the audio link above to hear the full story.

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.


As Donald Trump's inauguration approaches, we've been taking a look at communities around the country he will soon lead. It's our series Finding America. Today, Roane County, Tenn.

CHARLENE HIPSHER: Roane County is such a beautiful part of the country with the lush mountains and beautiful rivers. But we do have a terrible problem here, and it's opiate addiction.

SHAPIRO: That's Charlene Hipsher. She's an assistant to the local prosecutor. She's helped launch a special recovery court with the goal of getting drug addicts into treatment instead of jail. We sent a producer to spend some time with Hipsher in Roane County.


HIPSHER: We are on the main street in Kingston, Tenn. And we're getting ready to go into a little local restaurant called Handee Burger.


HIPSHER: Handee Burger is the heartbeat of this community. You have people from all walks of life here.

Hello, Ms. Jerri (ph). How are - oh, looky here. How are you?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: I'm extremely great.

HIPSHER: The people here are hardworking, kind, just salt of the earth. And so you have that. But on the other hand, you have this terrible addiction problem here. It starts tearing our community apart. Its tentacles start coming in and strangling out the very life of what should be an awesome, thriving community.

This is the Roane County Courthouse. It's a beautiful building - brick, big stately columns.



UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Good morning, officer.

UNIDENTIFIED COURT OFFICER: Do you have anything on you like a cell phone, wallets?

HIPSHER: We're going to head up to recovery court.

Recovery court is intensive supervision and treatment. It's an alternative to a jail sentence that gives a person an opportunity to work on the addiction and, hopefully, leave the program as a productive citizen within the community.

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America...

DENNIS HUMPHREY: My name is Judge Dennis Humphrey. I'm general sessions court judge of Roane County and also the recovery court judge in Roane County.

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: ...With liberty and justice for all.

HUMPHREY: Ashley (ph), come on up. I understand you've had a pretty rough week. And I'll sympathize with you on that. But you've been - it's encouraging to hear how serious you are about your plans.

We've learned that more jail, more jail, more jail does not work. It does not remedy the problem. But something in the nature of a drug court does - to get to the heart of their problem, try to remedy that, try to work with them to show them that we do care about what's happening.

Gabby (ph), come on up. You should have heard them talking about you a little while ago. I'm proud of Gabby, someone said. She's come so far, and I am proud of you, too. I present the new and improved Gabby. She is really working. She's doing a good job.


HUMPHREY: I'm really proud of you. You're doing good. All right.

HIPSHER: By the time they have phased up where they're getting ready to graduate, they are a completely different person than they were.

HUMPHREY: They've had a personality change.

HIPSHER: They've had a personality change.

HUMPHREY: They look happy.

HIPSHER: The mother of one of the participants in our recovery court came up to me recently and was telling me thank you because I now see a light that's coming on inside my daughter that I have not seen for many years. And she's becoming that girl that I knew. And that's what we see.


HIPSHER: And that is pretty cool.


HIPSHER: That's pretty cool.

There's this old Appalachian song called "I'm Just An Old Chunk Of Coal (But I'm Going To Be A Diamond Someday)." And when I'm here in Roane County, I see chunks of coal that could be diamonds. There's something beautiful laying just beneath the surface. If treatment were available, I just think there are diamonds that are getting ready to bust out all over the place.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Did I leave you enough room for your cream?

HIPSHER: Yes, you did.

SHAPIRO: That's Charlene Hipsher in Roane County, Tenn. That story was produced by Matt Shafer Powell and Jess Mador. It comes to us from Localore: Finding America, a national production of AIR, the Association of Independents in Radio. You can find more stories at NPR and at Finding America.


JOHNNY CASH: (Singing) I'm just an old chunk of coal. But I'm going to be a diamond someday.


And one last thing - you might be able to help us with an upcoming story. We're going to meet two brand new members of Congress, one Republican and one Democrat. What questions would you ask them on their first week on the job?

SHAPIRO: Let us know on Facebook. The show is @npratc.

CORNISH: You can find me under Audie Cornish.

SHAPIRO: And I'm on Facebook @arishapironpr. We want to hear from you.

(SOUNDBITE OF JOHN FAHEY SONG, "SLIGO RIVER BLUES") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.