bLACONIA — On December 5, 2013, Heather Albert was facing a trial and a possible prison sentence for felony drug possession. Because of the fledgling Recovery Court, she got a second chance.
Belknap County Prosecutor Melissa Guldbrandsen agreed to drop the felony drug charge if Alpert pleaded guilty to one misdemeanor count of drug possession. Instead of a 12-month sentence in the Belknap County House of Corrections, she agreed to participate in Recovery Court — a primarily volunteer drug court that took three years to get started. Albert was its first client.
By the next day, said Horizons Counseling Center manager, Albert was ready to quit.
"Just take me to jail," Abikoff recalled Alpert telling her.
But Alpert didn't give up, Abikoff didn't take her to jail, and yesterday, in a ceremony attended by all the program volunteers, N.H. Superior Court Chief Justice Tina Nadeau, Belknap County Attorney Melissa Guldbrandsen, police personnel, probation personnel, corrections personnel, public defenders, her own attorney, and N.H. State Drug Court Coordinator Alex Casale, Alpert became the first graduate of the fledgling court. A mid-day ceremony was held in the 4th Circuit Court, Laconia Division.
Judge Jim Carroll, whose dream for years has been a drug or recovery court in Belknap County, presided over yesterday's ceremony that he held held in the court room where Alpert spent and hour nearly every Tuesday for the past year discussing her progress and her setbacks.
Albert went to counseling for 3 1/2 hours a day, she did 500 hours of community service work — most of it at the Salvation Army. She went to AA meetings; she earned the equivalent of a high school diploma; and she participated in 35 straight days of intensive therapy.
In the process, she stayed sober and crime free.
After the ceremony, she said she can now "live and become part of the community. That's the stuff I could never see myself doing," she said.
She said she has solidified her relationship with her family, is working on getting scholarships and money to attend to Lakes Region Community College and is looking for a job. She is preparing to move into her own apartment — the first time in her life she has been independent.
For Abikoff, Recovery Court is a "labor of love."
"This will change minds in the community," she said yesterday. "It has already changed minds on this team."
When Recovery Court began not everyone was willing to give a break to self-admitted drug addicts. One of the people brought "kicking and screaming" into the fold was Guldbrandsen, whose job is to put drug offenders behind bars, not rehabilitate them.
During the beginning of the program, Guldbrandsen said she "had a difficult time giving an offender what I consider to be a huge break."
She said she would have to find a "significant enough change (in behavior) and history that I am willing to recommend it.
When asked about it late last week, she said she "now has a greater understanding of drug addiction."
Had the program not been in place, Guldbrandsen said Albert — and 10 others who are now progressing through the program — would have cost the state and county a considerable amount of money for incarceration.
She said she is still willing to cede her lunch hour every Tuesday to participate in the program. She said she'll still see drug use as a crime but she likes the program and enjoys getting to know the participants better.
Abikoff and Guldbrandsen said Recovery Court is not just a way to avoid going to jail. To date, Guldbrandsen said two people have been terminated from it and have gone to jail as a consequence.
Sitting in court is no picnic for the participants either.
Last Tuesday, four people met Carroll's stern stare as they tried to explain why they weren't participating to the degree Abikoff felt was appropriate.
One by one, each had to get up and apologize to the court, to the recovery court team, and to each other for not putting 100 percent of their efforts into the program.
One young man missed a meeting, was not participating in group sessions and had made no effort to begin his 500 hours of community service. He was also behind in his sliding scale payments to the program for its costs.
He explained to Carroll that he missed an appointment with his counselor to buy a car.
"Do you have money for a car?" asked Carroll. The man replied that he had borrowed the money from a family member.
"Well then borrow money for the program," Carroll said, telling him he had until the next Tuesday to complete 10 hours of community service and bring in some money or he would be terminated.
A second woman who had acted out during a counseling session apologized for her behavior and, on an upbeat note, told the court she had arraigned to do her community service at an animal shelter.
The real focus of Recovery Court is addiction said Casale — the state drug court coordinator who told Alpert yesterday that one of the toughest parts of her journey is immediately in front of her.
He told her that being the first person to make it through the program is "a big deal" but taking on the world without supervision and constant treatment can be a huge challenge. He said that by being the first, she would be seen as a example by the community and the pressure on her would be immense.
"Don't let your guard down," he said to her as she nodded her head. "Addiction is for the rest of your life. Do what you need to do to stay sober."
Nadeau had similar words for Albert.
"Now you have the ability to make healthy choices," she said, congratulating Alpert for making it through the program.
Nadeau said one of her goals as chief justice is to have a drug or recovery court in every county in the state.
"I'm excited to be here," Nadeau said. "This is the right way to address addiction and stop re-offending."
CAPTION: Jacqui Abikoff of Horizons Counseling Center, left, watches as 4th Circuit Court, Laconia Division Judge Jim Carroll presents heather Alpbert with a sobriety token and a certificate for her successful completion of the Recovery Court program. Albert is the first graduate of the Belknap County Recovery Court. (Alan MacRae/for The Laconia Daily Sun)