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Marion County court offers wheel of incentives for drug users charged with felonies

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Posted at 6:50 PM, May 11, 2023

INDIANAPOLIS — "I love it," Tiffany Luna said.

It's not often you hear offenders say they love court, but a new incentive offered at Marion County's drug court is making that sentiment stand true.

It's helping people push toward sobriety.

The year-long program is designed to help certain heavy drug users charged with felonies get their life back on track.

How the drug court program works

The drug court program is designed to be a year long, and not everyone gets to take part in court.

Judge Jose Salinas said the people in the program are more "hardcore addicts."

People are usually recommended for the program by a Marion County deputy prosecutor.

The program is broken up into three phases.

  • Months 1-4, defendants go to court weekly
  • Months 4-8, defendants go to court bi-weekly
  • Months 8-12, defendants go to court monthly

Regardless of court appearances, defendants have to get drug tested twice a week, stay in communication with their lawyers and case managers and engage in treatment.
The program is designed to help provide the necessary tools people need to live a sober life.

"It gives them the chance and opportunity to right their wrongs and move forward in life," Taylor Arwood said.

Arwood is a case manager. He says he sees the benefit this program has had for his clients.

The program is pretty rigorous, and intense.

But Jeff Yanis, the director of drug court, says it's worth it, because staying sober isn't easy.

"Everybody deserves a second chance," Yanis said.

At the end of the program, defendants have their charges dropped.

Diversion opportunity for offenders

"There was three outcomes. Dead, jail or miserable. Choose wisely. I chose to get the hell out," Luna said.

Luna is charged with several felonies, her drug of choice was Meth.

"I have three to four dope cases. I have two batteries, a resisting arrest. I have like eight felonies," she said.

But inside the court room, they're treated as people, not criminals.

"We treat them like human beings," Judge Salinas said.

It's that bit of kindness and compassion that case managers say is vital to their client's success.

"We will never understand, but we can at least try. Some people don't have support systems, and sometimes we are all they have," Abbie Roberts said.

Other case managers, like Madisen Martin, says it is an opportunity to give people down on their luck a chance at success.

"This is the perfect opportunity to find people who might not have had the best start at life, but we can make sure they have a better end to it," Martin said.

Judge Salinas says it's important to help these people succeed.

He says they will be in our community regardless, so you ought to make them productive members of society.

"We're here to help our clients. We're here to make sure that when our clients are done with the program, they have the opportunity to stay sober and their cases are dismissed," Judge Salinas said.

Lighthearted twist to the rigorous program

Thought the program is intense for all of the participants, the court is doing what they can to make it lighthearted.

Everyone who is called up before the judge receives a thundering applause.

Participants who are in good standing with the court, get a shot at the "wheel of fun." The prize wheel offers an incentive for offenders to stay on track toward sobriety.

If a defendant is passing regular drug tests, showing up and doing all that is asked of them, they can spin the wheel.

Prizes up for grabs

There aren't any get out of jail free prizes on the wheel, but there are plenty of small incentives to keep them motivated.

  • Candy
  • Extra coin
  • Fist bump from judge
  • $25 Kroger card
  • Standing ovation
  • First in line
  • Paid parking
  • Free voucher/ $10 of user fees
  • Next court date remote

The jackpot of prizes appears to be the $25 Kroger gift card.
"It feels good stepping up to the wheel," Luna said.

Kimberlee Layton says the encouragement helps get her through to the next week.

"I was like wow I fist bumped the judge," Layton said. "It gives you that incentive and it makes you so excited to be in correspondence with the judge and the court people here. It's a whole different atmosphere."

Layton used to be what she called a "hard core crack cocaine addict."

"The whole surrounding. From the prostituting, to the selling drugs. To the maintaining your high," Layton said.

It's landed her in jail for 17-years, and she's lost her four kids because of it.

"Crack cocaine made me a horrible person. [I made] horrible decisions, I was careless, self centered," Layton said.

She wanted more for her life, which is why she enrolled in the program.

Where the wheel came from

The idea of the wheel came about after Judge Salinas' staff attended a conference hosted by the National Association of Drug Court Professionals. They saw the idea being used by a court elsewhere.

The idea was a hit, and it was quickly adopted by the Marion County court.

It's the little things like support, kindness and incentives that those who are down on their luck say has made the world of difference.

"They helped me pick myself up off the ground," Luna said. "If it weren't for them having faith in me, I think I would have lost all faith in myself. Period."