NEW BRAUNFELS — For a court coordinator, Steve Thomas has some very specialized skills.
In the past week, his grant-writing skills have brought in almost $500,000 to help addicts netted by the county’s felony drug court break the hold of substance abuse.
In their meeting today, Comal County commissioners are expected to approve a grant for $346,956 from the federal Bureau of Justice Assistance and SAMSHA, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.
Additionally, last week, Comal County was notified of a $74,750 grant Thomas had applied for from Gov. Rick Perry’s office to cover the salary of a probation officer and to provide training.
The BJA/SAMSHA grant calls for a nominal $7,000 match of county funds, which can be accounted for with funds the county already expends on the project, Thomas said.
The funds BJA/SAMSHA funds will provide treatment and training assistance for participants in the county’s Challenge Court, a voluntary program designed to help participants charged with drug or alcohol abuse-related crimes.
The Challenge Court program has 25 participants in varying stages of completion of the program, which can last from 18 months to 28 months.
Participants typically come to the program after they are arrested or indicted.
Connie Hayes, a licensed counselor who works with Challenge Court participants, hails the program’s integrated approach that pulls together elements of mental health, substance abuse, living skills and helping participants deal with their own troubled past.
“We help them transition back into the community,” Hayes said.
Comal County prosecutor Sam Katz said Challenge Court helps him fulfill his responsibilities.
“My job as a prosecutor is to seek justice, not to seek convictions,” he said. “If I can help get people who have drug and alcohol addictions (help), I’m truly seeking therapeutic justice for everyone in the community, not just the participants.”
Probation officer Matthew Baldassari estimated participants receive 10 times the supervision that other defendants get as they move through the standard justice system.
Steve Thomas helped Judge Dib Waldrip found Challenge Court in 2007. Waldrip said Thomas’ success at garnering big grant money for the program shows true commitment.
“It shows tremendous effort above and beyond the call of normal duty. But for his efforts, we wouldn’t have been able to take the Challenge Court to the next level (of multiple treatment avenues to address the root cause of addiction),” Waldrip said.
While the justice system provides for treatment of drug and alcohol abuse, that can be a Band-Aid approach that fails to address long-standing personal problems, he said, calling the Challenge Court approach “therapeutic justice.”
“All too often, the justice system appears to be like the transportation system; it’s just, ‘Next! Next!’” Waldrip said.
A court coordinator for three years, Thomas has been at the courthouse for 13 years, which includes years from a 13-year stint with Comal County Sheriff’s Office. Thomas is completing his second master’s degree, adding an M.A. in political science to his first one, which is in public administration.
For him, the Challenge Court is something of a passion.
Four participants have graduated, with a zero recidivism rate, Thomas said.
“The longer a person is in treatment, the better the odds of keeping their sobriety long-term,” Thomas said.
Participants submit to drug testing, and they have a 99.4 percent negative rate that is remarkable, he said.
“From every indication, the people are really doing exceptionally well,” he said.
Challenge Court operates with the help of a team, which includes a few staff but mostly volunteers. Thomas praises their dedication to the project.
“I am just one cog in the criminal justice wheel around here,” he said, his comment quickly gathering protests from Challenge Court team members assembled for a meeting in Courtroom 2.
“Yeah, but you’re the MONEY cog,” Connie Hayes said.