When Ali Shelley stood before a Salt Lake judge and was sent to drug court, she weighed 83 pounds, was facing four felony charges and was so addicted to methamphetamine she could not go a day without it.
Shelley messed up at first, but 3rd District Judge Randall Skanchy gave her another chance and, this time, Shelley got serious about following the demanding drug-court regimen. She cleaned up and graduated from the program, has been sober since February 2008, holds a job and cares for her two young sons.
Along the way, she discovered something interesting: Kicking drugs is one thing. Staying clean in a world full of temptation is another.
She found a host of allies in a nonprofit program called "Friends of Drug Court," which assists people while they are in the drug-court program, but also provides moral support and friendship once people are on their own.
"It helps you find ways to spend time with other people who are sober," said Shelley. "I now have a phone that is full of numbers. Everybody I know who is trying to stay sober, I say, 'Call me — 24 hours a day — call me,' and I know they'd do the same for me and that's what keeps me sober."
Friends of Drug Court began in 1999, about four years after Utah launched "drug court" in its adult felony system in Salt Lake City. The idea of drug courts in general caught on and soon more were created for adults with misdemeanor offenses and for juveniles.
Salt Lake attorney Gregory Skordas said the idea arose in 1995 when the Utah State Bar sent him and other attorneys to a conference sponsored by the Association of Drug Court Professionals. Utah officials were a bit skeptical at first, but decided to start a drug court with the help of prosecutors, defense attorneys, judges and state court administrative officials.
"Some of the judges and alumni (those who have completed drug court) were discovering it was incredibly successful," Skordas said, noting that many who graduated from the program were clean for the first time in their lives.
While in drug court, they also enjoyed the camaraderie of others who were fighting the same battle. But once they had completed the program, recovering addicts found life outside drug court was pretty lonely.
"They started using again, not necessarily committing crimes, but started going back in the drug culture again," Skordas said. "Some judges and care providers asked me and some others if we would start what was almost an alumni association."
Friends of Drug Court serves many purposes, including helping with financial matters with "scholarships" to assist many recovering addicts and celebratory graduations for those who complete the drug-court program.
"While in drug court, people have social and other expenses that the taxpayers shouldn't have to pick up," Skordas said. "Some of them can't even afford their own urinalysis tests."
Donations from private industry, various individuals in the legal community and from graduates themselves fund the effort.
Friends of Drug Court also provides Stepping Stones to Recovery, a type of support group for drug-court graduates, a children's group, and drug- and alcohol-free social events for recovering addicts and their families — many of whom have been apart for a long time.
There is an annual motorcycle ride followed by a summer picnic with games and activities at Liberty Park, a trunk-or-treat Halloween activity followed by an indoor costume party with movies, a pinata, prizes for costumes and other things, and an annual Christmas party where each child receives a gift and everyone enjoys plenty of food.
Skordas estimates at least 300 people attend the summer picnic and there typically are 200 people at the Christmas party.
Mike Beckstrand, the felony drug-court administrator who also sits on the board of directors for Friends of Drug Court, said many recovering addicts are thrilled to be clean after graduating from the program. But it's not unusual for them to be unemployed and strapped for cash.
They also need to avoid certain triggers that could pull them back into the drug culture — and holidays can be risky.
The Christmas party is one example of how Friends of Drug Court can help.
"We can give them one clean and sober activity where they will be safe and can bring their families," Beckstrand said. "A lot of them are starting out with nothing, coming out of jail, having lost their homes, their furniture. Our goal is to provide a meal, toys, some entertainment. At least we can provide them with a little bit of Christmas."
Shelley, 24, is one person who can vouch for the effectiveness of the drug-court program and Friends of Drug Court. Her husband, Gene, also a recovering addict, surrendered to federal officials to serve a prison term once she completed the state drug-court program. That permitted one adult to take care of their two boys, ages 3 and 5.
During a recent interview, she said repeatedly how grateful she is to her family in supporting her efforts to get clean. She also had nothing but praise for Judge Skanchy for not giving up on her, and said drug court and Friends of Drug Court have permanently changed her life for the better.
"Friends of Drug Court is also a really good way for me to give back to the community," she said, adding that she is now on its board of directors.
When she was abusing drugs, she stole identities, took things from a lot of people and shortchanged her own children. Now she wants to make amends and believes she can do a great deal through Friends of Drug Court.
"When I help give back, I'm helping to give back to my kids, who went through a lot that they didn't need to because of my addiction. It also helps make the community a better place," Shelley said. "Friends of Drug Court helps rebuild families. It will help bring down the rate of people who go back to that lifestyle."