The atmosphere in Courtroom 1 on the second floor of the Ellis County Courthouse was very much unlike a normal courtroom Thursday afternoon.
As the clock ticked to 3:30 p.m., 10 of the first participants in Ellis County’s first drug court greeted each other heartily and laughed as they talked about their experiences in meetings and court hearings, much like students comparing notes about their break on the first day of class.
As a door on the side of the courtroom opened and members of the Drug Court Team entered, the “students” suppressed snickers and quieted down somewhat.
But when the door to the judge’s chambers opened with the order “all rise,” a sense of anticipation took over. No one knew quite what to expect from this new process.
As Judge Glenn Braun took his seat at the bench, he greeted the participants to the new court, one that aims to be more conversational rather than adversarial.
“We might make some some mistakes, stub our toes a little bit, but we’ll work through it,” Braun said.
“How many of you are nervous?” Braun asked, and several raised their hands and laughed.
“Good. Me, too,” Braun said.
“This is a little different experience for you as well as for the court,” he said.
The participants in Drug Court are sentenced to the program, which has five phases they progress through, working to obtain new goals of how long they stay clean, obtaining treatment and going to meetings and working to change their lives for the better.
While their court cases are a matter of public record, The Hays Daily News has opted not to use their names out of respect for their privacy as they deal with their treatment and related issues.
Each one was to stand before the judge and talk about how they are making those changes or what kind of problems they have faced that might have caused them to slip. Braun said he wanted each to stay for the whole session, so they could hear how each other is doing and maybe learn to apply what others are doing in their own lives.
Like any first day, however, there were a couple of slips, one right at the beginning.
The first participant Braun called wasn’t in the courtroom.
“We’ll secure his attendance the old-fashioned way,” Braun said, referring to a bench warrant.
But no sooner had he said that than the man entered the courtroom, apologizing for his lateness. Taking the lectern before the judge, he explained he had come straight from work in the oilfields near Russell. With the power outage there Thursday, his employer had the crews helping set up generators.
“If you’re tardy with good reason, there’s no penalty,” Braun said, and then began their conversation. Braun asked him how his job was going.
“It’s a good crew,” he said. “There’s no triggers, no risk of using.”
One other man didn’t show up. A bench warrant was issued for him, but otherwise, the first day went even better than expected, Drug Court Coordinator Teresa Greenwood said afterward.
One by one, Braun called each to the lectern. He already had an idea of what had been happening with each, thanks to a meeting with the Drug Court Team prior to the session. But he talked with each, praising their successes, probing for answers to their failures and asking what their plans are for more success to show in two weeks at the next session.
He even joked with a few them, commenting to J.L., a tall, young man in jeans and a white polo shirt on his short blond hair.
“From the looks of your mugshot, you got a haircut. It looks good. I’d like to show this to my son,” Braun said, which prompted laughter.
Others spoke of their new jobs and their employers’ cooperation in scheduling around their requirements for treatment and support meetings and appointments with Community Corrections officers. Some talked of being able to have visitation with their children again.
But for some, Braun took a more stern tone.
One man had just spent 68 days in jail after a positive substance test while on probation.
“What are you going to do about it?” Braun asked.
“I gotta change everything,” the man answered — the people and places in his life.
But other than that, he admitted he had no plan.
“It seems to me if you had 68 days in jail, you’d have a better plan than ‘I don’t know,’ ” Braun said.
He instructed the man to start attending Narcotics Anonymous and have a plan in place for employment and living arrangements.
“We’re going to have put something in place or Drug Court is not going to be an option,” Braun told him.
Braun told a woman he was pleased at her report she had a job, clean drug tests, was in treatment and was going to church on a regular basis. But he was concerned she was still living with her boyfriend, especially after a recent domestic incident.
“Do you think that’s healthy?” he asked her.
“Both of us are trying to stay clean,” she said.
She didn’t want to get a No Contact Order through the court, she said, as both their names on their lease.
“I don’t want him to get kicked out on the street for that,” she said.
Braun instructed her to contact Options Domestic and Sexual Violence Services before the next Drug Court in two weeks.
“I really want you to do that. See about getting an advocate, someone who can help you,” he said.
“This kind of stuff is counterproductive to any kind of success,” he said.
To another woman who had violated a No Contact Order against her boyfriend, he said, “Both of you are risking your freedom by contact.”
For those who did well, Braun called them to the bench, where they could draw from a bowl to get a $5 gift card from area businesses.
Assistant Ellis County Attorney Chris Lyon is prosecutor for Drug Court, but for the hour-long session, he was silent. He said it’s a very different role from a normal criminal court proceeding.
“As a prosecutor, I’m trying to give evidence to get someone convicted of a crime. They’ve already been convicted,” he said.
“This is a way to make their lives better. In this stage, we’re all on the same team,” he said.
Ellis County Sheriff’s Deputy Brian Shannon, a law enforcement member of the Drug Court Team, agreed.
“If we can help just one person, we’ve been successful,” he said.