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Drug Court: A Different Kind Of Second Chance

This article is more than 11 years old.

This story was reported by Val Wang.

BOSTON — Michael Sheehan is dressed in a suit and tie and at first glance you could easily mistake him for a lawyer. You would never guess that for the last three decades he's been fighting a battle against addiction to cocaine and alcohol. Five years ago he was clean, but all it took to bring him down was one night in Brockton.

"When I relapsed five years ago, I was a general contractor, huge business, two boats. Brand new trucks. Been sober five years, sponsoring a guy," Sheehan says. "[I was] at a meeting in Brockton with my group, and decided I was going to go to Brockton for one night. Just one night. And it was all gone. A year and a half later, everything was gone. All my business, my tools, my marriage. I left my 12-year-old son, waiting to get picked up for guitar lessons. Just didn't show up.”

Convicted of larceny in 2010, Sheehan was headed back to prison but the court offered him an alternative: drug court. Drug court is a strict rehabilitation program that requires participants to live in a halfway house with a curfew and submit to regular drug testing and counseling. Participants must also appear weekly before Quincy District Court Judge Diane Moriarty.

"Usually as judges we only see all the bad stuff happening. We never see the good stuff happening," Judge Moriarty says. "The drug court is different because I see them every week and I see them getting better, and getting healthier, and reconnecting with their family, and getting a job, and feeling better."

A native of Somerville and an altar boy growing up, Sheehan got hooked on cocaine as a teen and had his first run in with the law at 21. Now 49, Sheehan has been in and out of prison more times than he can remember. He decided to take a chance on drug court.

"Fifteen months ago when I came to drug court I was desperate. I wanted to get sober, and I was wiling to do whatever it took. That’s really what it comes down to," Sheehan says. "But I was definitely scared. I mean, look at my pattern. It would be like a fireman. The bell would go off, and I had to answer it."

Instant Consequences

Drug court demanded of Sheehan the one thing he was the worst at: honesty. Lying and breaking the rules meant getting locked up for a few days, or, if he made too many mistakes, serving out his full prison sentence.

"If you pick up in drug court, you’re doomed. You can’t fake those urines all the time and show up for your appointments when you're active," Sheehan says. "Sit there and be honest with somebody in a probation meeting. These people have been in business for a while, they know what they’re doing, you know?"

Sheehan says recovery would have never happened for him in jail.

"In order to get recovery, you've got to be living in the environment you're going to live in. When you’re in jail, there's a whole other environment," Sheehan says. "It's a different set of rules. How are you supposed to go to somebody and be honest about what you're feeling? Because all you’re really feeling in jail is fear, anger, mistrust, you don't trust anybody, you’re a fool if you do."

The Quincy programs is one of 16 drug court programs currently operating in Massachusetts.

In the past 10 years, 450 people have started the Quincy program, and more than a third have graduated. Even those who don't make it all the way through learn skills to stay clean.

Most participants use the 12 steps of Alcoholics Anonymous to help break the addiction and begin to take a hard look at their lives.

A recent study of drug courts, an initiative funded by the U.S. Department of Justice, found that the program significantly reduces both crime and drug use. The study also found that while drug court requires a significant investment, the reduction in crime saves the system money.

Judge Moriarty came to believe in drug court through her work as a defense attorney.

"When I was a defense attorney, I found that 85 perfect of my clients were involved at some level with drugs or alcohol when they committed the crime or were drug-seeking, and that’s most of the kind of crime I saw, so I said, 'There’s got to be something else that we can do besides this roller coaster,' ” Moriarty says.

A New-Found Sense Of Gratitude

Sheehan believes he is now off the roller coaster. He shares custody of his two children with his ex-wife and is starting a new construction business. He says the urge to use never completely disappears, but this time he's prepared to fight it.

"I have a defense against using tonight," he says. "It's just because I did the right thing this morning and I did the right thing yesterday, and I've got a plan of action."

On graduation day, everyone who completes the drug court reads a letter in front of the court.

"I have a disease of addiction but today I don't suffer from it," Sheehan reads on his graduation day. "Thanks to Judge Moriarty and Judge Coven for giving me the 20th-something chance.”

Sheehan also thanked his halfway house and his sponsor for helping him in his daily struggle to break lifelong habits.

"If you don’t feel this sense of gratitude," he tells his fellow members, "then change what you’re doing. Because a grateful heart doesn't drink."

This program aired on February 20, 2012.


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