HUNTINGTON – J.P. Parsons was a handful, to say the least, on his journey through Cabell County drug court. There was no debate about that from anyone in the courthouse, including himself.
The notes from his first few weeks were far from glowing as Cabell County Circuit Judge Greg Howard revisited Parsons’ initial drug court hearings in December 2017: a bad attitude, seemed angry with the program, wasn’t compliant on community service.
But it was read with a smile Monday afternoon. Somewhere between then and now, something changed for the 38-year-old Huntington native. A life of crime and drugs had dominated much of his adult years despite dozens of attempts to change for the better.
And now with 15 solid months sober, Parsons earned a rare second chance at reshaping his life as he graduated from Cabell County’s drug court.
“He came into the program as kind of a tough nut to crack,” Howard said. “He had some history, he had an attitude, and he did not want to give up and give himself to the program, but through the hard work of this whole team, eventually he got it.”
Parsons described his former life like his old pair of Nike Air Maxes – worn nearly to pieces from running the streets so roughly. He’s since replaced those sneakers with a new pair his daughter bought him.
Likewise, he owed his success in part to cutting himself off completely from his old friends and life – now living steady for his children and wife-to-be.
“You have to surrender. You have to want it,” Parsons said. “Being through probably 20 detox centers and six 28-day programs, and I don’t know how many six-month programs, I never really wanted it because I never gave it all the effort.
“Once I weighed my options and realized the better was to come, it made me change. I wanted to do right.”
And while they could joke about it now, Parsons had once been the ire of drug court probation officers. That proved to be the difference in changing his life, he continued, because it proved they truly cared about him.
“I could feel it in my heart that although I’ve had many parole officers before, I could tell that they cared about what the outcome of my life would be,” Parsons said.
He was the only person graduating from drug court this time around, but the impact seemed more like several people were graduating with him. At least four prior drug court graduates returned to watch Parsons receive his award, and his once hard-knock journey through the system was a textbook example for dozens of current participants in the courtroom watching.
Graduating such a once-difficult case also was a high-mark accomplishment for the drug court staff, Howard added, considering Parsons would likely be in prison or worse had it not been for their work.
“To have somebody like J.P. graduate is an inspiration not only to me as the judge, but our whole team here: everybody that works in therapy, probation, and everyone who works in the program,” Howard said. “To see him graduate and to hear what we’ve said today, it just rejuvenates all of us.”
Parsons will continue in after-care for six months – a safety net for post-graduates where they regularly check-up with probation officers and for therapy. Moving forward, he plans to enter the recovery field and operate his own sober living facility.
“We’ll have eyes on J.P. for a while, and I can expect we’re going to see some big things out of him,” Howard said.
The Cabell County Adult Drug Court first opened in 2009 as a 12-week-long program to target felony offenders whose nonviolent crimes are committed to fuel a drug addiction. Today, those in the program must meet at least a year-long commitment.
To enter drug court, a defendant must be charged with a non-violent felony offense. A defense attorney will usually request a referral to the program, and the prosecutor and judge must agree.
Each time a Cabell circuit judge gets a new request for drug court, he warns applicants of the program’s strenuous requirements. Those who return to the judge without succeeding in the program often say they didn’t realize the seriousness of the program.
Probation officers screen each potential participant, a process that tends to weed out those who really want to be there from those who might be simply attempting to avoid prison time.
While some participants could be part of a rehabilitation program if they need more guidance or restrictions, the recovery is done within the community without lockdown status.
Each phase entails different levels of random drug testing, continual meetings with probation officers and the continuing attendance of hours of self-help meetings each week.
Participants sometimes enter the first phase, which helps create a routine and establish sobriety for the participants, with no possessions. Without employment, the participants are expected to complete at least 16 hours of community service weekly.
Phase two is the intensive treatment phase meant to stabilize the participant in their treatment while also pushing to develop participants’ educational or vocational goals or obtain employment. To get to phase three, you must be 60 days sober.
Phase three is the reintegration phase meant to move the participant toward self-sufficiency and connect to the community. Participants are expected to maintain full-time employment or community service and have stable housing, among other things. Before graduation, you must be 120 days clean.
About a dozen of Cabell County’s court officials gather at the Monday meetings to discuss how each member is progressing. They talk about their ups and downs, together deciding how the judge will handle each case that week.
One could also be sanctioned for breaking even the slightest rule. Even if you are a few minutes late for a meeting, you could lose two weeks of the time you’ve put in. You could also be jailed for some offenses. There are chances to earn that time back, however.
After graduation is the aftercare, which promotes the maintenance of the new, drug-free and stable lives.
Follow reporter Bishop Nash on Twitter at @BishopNash.