SPECIALTY COURT: Working to help addicts fight addictions

LAS VEGS (KSNV & MyNews3) -- News 3 has been talking this week about specialty court, a "rehab" alternative to jail for some criminals convicted on drug charges.

Nationwide, for every dollar invested in specialty court, taxpayers save close to $4 in criminal justice costs. News 3's Jessica Moore has more in this report.

But, does specialty court really help addicts beat their addictions?

Two judges right here in Clark County insist that it does.

"What the clients are most scared about is not me," said Justice of the Peace Ann Zimmerman who is a passionate believer in the specialty court system.

Coming off the bench and joining the crowd assembled in her courtroom, she offers a personal touch to a program that gives drug abusers a second chance at a new life and an opportunity to start over - one that her brother never had.

"I will never forget getting the call here that he was dead," Zimmerman said. "I wasn't a judge here before he died. We didn't have this drug court then so he would have liked that we were trying to help people. He was such a good guy that's why I don't like it when people label others as drug addicts. My brother had so many redeeming qualities about him."

And it is redemption that "specialty court" gives local addicts a chance to find.

Zimmerman's devotion to specialty court justice is shared by Judge Linda Bell who wanted to be a veterinarian until she was 20-years-old.

"I think I've always been drawn to helping professions so I wanted to do that and I was a substance abuse counselor in college and I was a public defender for most of my legal career, so," Bell said.

Today, Bell presides over hundreds of cases, helping participants free themselves from the bond of addiction, find recovery; live crime lives and become productive citizens.

People like Eric Mason who escaped his life as a meth addict.

"I was a threat to society, and to myself. I was going to die," Mason says.

The rigorous program requires participants to stay clean and sober, checking in for regular court appearances and undergoing routine drug tests. They also have to pay the system back for the services they use.

When compared to housing an inmate, specialty courts save money -- between $4,000 and $12,000 per client.

"Drug court was started 25 years ago by older conservative judges who were just tired of seeing that revolving door of people going through the system and going through the system and nothing was really changing," Bell said.

At the most recent graduation, 42 people walked the aisle to receive their diplomas, including Robby Lewis.

"This will be the first time that my mother and I are in a courtroom and I'm not in handcuffs," Lewis said. "I want to give a special thanks to Judge Bell and the courts for giving me the opportunity to prove to my family that I can change and to prove to other addicts out there that there is a way out and that's through programs like this."

For the judicial women presiding over specialty court graduations, the thrill of victory is just as sweet. Sometimes even bittersweet as the memory of so many lives lost serves as a guiding light.

Graduation is just one goal of specialty court. The most important take away is participants learning how to recognize, address and resolve the root causes of their addictions, so they can once again become productive members of our community.

That awareness not only brings redemption, but helps to break the cycle of crime.