Arkansas Drug court offers offenders faith-based options Judge says programs offer defendants a structured, drug-free environment and are less expensive than licensed treatment centers

By Andy Davis

Arkansas Democrat-Gazette

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) -- One of the first defendants in what would become Garland County District Judge Ralph Ohm's drug court arrived at the courthouse wearing a yellow do-rag, a jean jacket and a pair of green parachute pants she had found in a trash bin.

Battling an addiction to crack cocaine, Lisa Washington said she wandered in that day in 2006, not because she had a pending case but because Ohm had been one of her instructors at a community college, and she thought he might be able to help her.

"If you don't help me, I'm going to die," Washington remembers telling the judge in court.

Barely recognizing the former straight-A student from his criminal law and criminal procedure classes, Ohm told Washington he would help her, then sent her to jail on a charge of public intoxication.

Days later, he released her to Potter's Clay, a Hot Springs nonprofit that offers women Bible-based classes and support group meetings, along with room and board.

Since then, Ohm has given hundreds of other defendants the option of enrolling in residential programs at Potter's Clay and other faith based organizations, including Teen Challenge of Arkansas and The Father's House, a nonprofit with facilities in Hot Springs and rural Hot Spring County, as an alternative to jail.

While the faith-based groups are not licensed by the state Office of Alcohol and Drug Abuse Prevention to treat addiction, Ohm said they offer defendants a structured, drug-free environment at less expense than a stay in a licensed treatment center.

At Potter's Clay, for instance, women are not charged a fee, but perform household chores and work at a thrift store to help pay the nonprofit's expenses.

"The faith part is not what attracts me," Ohm said. "The attraction is the people and the structure and the cost."

The judge's use of the programs drew an anonymous complaint to the Judicial Discipline and Disability Commission in 2010 that Ohm was infringing on defendants' religious freedoms. The commission notified Ohm last year that it found no evidence of wrongdoing.

Casey Bright, president of the Arkansas Substance Abuse Providers Association, said a growing number of judges have begun referring defendants to faith-based programs.

The programs help many people, he said, but could be counterproductive for others who don't have religious beliefs but just want to stay out of jail.

"Treatment is so much about client buy-in," said Bright, who is director of the Quapaw House, a licensed treatment center in Hot Springs. "If they don't buy into it, they're just going to relapse, and you may have wasted a lot of resources."

Ohm said defendants who object to going to a faith-based organization are given the option of enrolling in residential treatment or transitional housing at the Quapaw House.

"Nobody is compelled to" participate in a faith-based program, Ohm said. "It's an option that's available to give them an opportunity to try to get their life back together."

Ohm said he first allowed a defendant to enroll in a faith based program about six years ago, after an attorney asked permission for his client to go to Potter's Clay.

About a month later, Washington came into the courtroom, and Ohm thought of the program.

Washington, who had worked as a teacher at Central High School in Little Rock and at a psychiatric hospital before she began using crack cocaine, said she had tried other treatment programs, but always relapsed.

Potter's Clay was different, she said.

"They started giving me what I thought I was not worthy of, and that was simply love," Washington, now 42, said. "They genuinely cared about me and my well-being."

When she returned to Ohm's court for her first progress report, Ohm told her he was proud of her. With his permission, she sang a few verses of "God Has Smiled on Me," a gospel song her grandmother often had sung.

"I didn't have the words to thank him enough," Washington said.

After Washington completed the program, in about seven months, Ohm hired her as a file clerk. Since 2008, she has taught algebra to special education students at Lake side High School in Hot Springs.

Encouraged by Washington's success, Ohm started referring more defendants to faith-based programs, as well as the Quapaw House.

Defendants with less severe addictions are given the option of attending support group meetings, including the Bible based Celebrate Recovery and 12-step programs such as Alcoholics Anonymous. Those who complete a program and pass drug and alcohol tests typically have their charges dismissed.

A few years ago, Ohm had so many defendants enrolled in rehabilitation programs that he began having a special court session for them on one Friday a month.

During one session, in June, most of the defendants, accompanied by representatives of the faith-based groups or the Quapaw House, received glowing reports.

But the defendants also included a woman who had been assigned to attend Celebrate Recovery meetings, then failed a drug test.

Appearing via a video connection from the Garland County jail, she told Ohm she did not want to enroll in another faith-based program.

"I'm going to try to help you if there's any way possible," Ohm told her.

Ohm said he later released her to the transitional housing program at the Quapaw House, which charges participants a fee of $100 per month.

Of those in residential programs, the largest number in Ohm's court are assigned to The Father's House, which houses men at a complex in rural Hot Spring County, near Donaldson. Last year, the nonprofit opened a center for women in Hot Springs.

The Rev. Gary Jennings, director of The Father's House, said defendants from Ohm's court accounted for all but about four of the 22 women in the program as of last week and for 16 of the 26 men.

Participants in the six month program are assigned jobs at area businesses, with their wages going to pay the nonprofit's expenses. It doesn't accept government funding. Jennings said he doesn't require participants to be Christians, but makes it clear to them that the program is Bible-based.

"We're not going to force it down them, but at the same time, they're going to be getting a steady diet of it," Jennings said.

The Father's House also gets referrals from other courts across the state, Jennings said.

Garland County Circuit Judge Homer Wright said he has agreed to defer felony proceedings for defendants who go to The Father's House. Often, prosecutors drop the charges after the defendant completes the program.

"I will say the program appears to be very successful in dealing with people who are serious about their recovery," Wright said.

The religious requirements of one group, the Drug and Alcohol Recovery Program, which has campuses in Decatur and Tahlequah, Okla., drew allegations of First Amendment violations in a federal lawsuit filed in June 2011.

Dennis Malipurathu, who said he is an adherent of Sikh Dharma, complained in the suit that the nonprofit forced him to attend Christian church services and cut his hair in violation of his religious beliefs after he was sent there by a drug court in Oklahoma. Malipurathu eventually failed out of the drug court and was sentenced to 15 years in prison.

Raymond Jones, the nonprofit's director, said in a court filing that Malipurathu in the enrolled Drug and Alcohol Recovery Program voluntarily and didn't object to the haircut. A trial date has not been set.

The Drug and Alcohol Recovery Program gets referrals from courts in Arkansas and Oklahoma and also houses inmates who are released from Arkansas prisons up to a year before their parole eligibility date.

While she was on the bench, former Washington County Circuit Judge Mary Ann Gunn said she often used the program for defendants who were at risk of getting kicked out of her drug court for noncompliance.

Program participants also made up about half of the recovering addicts that she supervised as part of a syndicated television show, Last Shot With Judge Gunn, which premiered in September. Gunn retired as a judge last year to film the show.

She said she never heard any complaints about the Drug and Alcohol Recovery Program's religious content.

"In talking to the residents -- they're grateful," Gunn said. "Many of them will tell you that they'd be dead if they weren't at DARP."

Published: Fri, Jul 27, 2012