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Getting a second chance

Collaborative Courts give drug and alcohol violators a way to avoid jail and get clean and sober.

August 12, 2010|By Ashley Breeding, coastlinepilot@latimes.com
  • Kathleen Burnham, center, and Zara Cerni, right, attend a board meeting for the Community Courts Foundation at the Law Offices of Scott & Whitehead in Newport Beach in Wednesday
Kathleen Burnham, center, and Zara Cerni, right, attend… (Scott Smeltzer,…)

When Paul Brown was arrested for possession of cocaine twice within the same month in 2001, the 30-something Laguna Beach resident was facing felony charges, three and a half years in prison and a grim future.

Thanks to the Collaborative Courts rehabilitation program, established by Orange County Superior Court Judge Wendy Lindley 14 years ago as a means of helping substance abusers become "taxpayers and not tax takers," Brown was given the opportunity to clean up his act and have the charges against him dismissed.

Serving adult and juvenile drug offenders, DUI offenders, and the at-risk population of veterans, homeless and the mentally ill, Collaborative Courts use the power of the judiciary and collective skill of the probation and sheriff's departments, health care agencies, public defenders and District Attorney's offices and judges and staff to help those on a destructive path become functioning members of society. The program also saves millions of dollars in tax money — $7 for every $1 spent — that would otherwise be used to imprison them, Lindley said.

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The program — typically 18 to 24 months — is designed to rehabilitate through a four-phase series of mandatory self-help meetings, individual and group counseling, employment or school enrollment and court attendance.

Participants accepted into the program remain under strict supervision, and are subject to random drug and alcohol tests and home searches.

"I had no intention of really getting sober when I went into the program," Brown said. "I just wanted to stay out of jail and then go back to the way I was living — using — after I had my charges dropped."

But amid his "faux recovery," Brown said he had an epiphanic moment in which he realized he'd been in denial of his addictions — a moment that suddenly jolted him into genuine mental and physical recovery.

"I never really believed I was an alcoholic or drug addict until that time," he recalled. "Suddenly, the process went from my head to my heart, and the desire and obsession was lifted out of me.

"There were so many times over the years when I'd thought, 'I should be dead. Why is God keeping me here?' Now I know I have a purpose, and that's to stay sober, be happy and help others."

Now sober for almost a decade, Brown devotes his free time to reaching out to others who face similar struggles, through the Community Courts Foundation in Laguna Beach.

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