Since taking over about nine months ago as judge of the Beaufort County Adult Multi-Disciplinary Court, which provides treatment for substance abuse and mental health, Erin Dean has worked to increase participants' accountability.
The conversations in Erin Dean's courtroom Tuesday could have been heard around any water cooler in Beaufort County.
Dean, judge of the Adult Multi-Disciplinary Court, knows treatment reports and test results only tell part of the story of how her dozen or so charges were doing after the long holiday weekend. After members of her team finished giving clean bills of progress, Dean got down to the gossip.
"So, tell me about Thanksgiving."
"Was there drama with your girlfriend?"
"How was work? Was the annoying person in the kitchen?"
Dean cares about these things, but the questions go further, reminding participants they are accountable to the program -- which provides treatment for both substance abuse and mental health. That same philosophy has also driven several changes since Dean took over in February, replacing Judge Gerald Smoak, who retired.
"It tells people, 'Look, we know what you're doing; we're paying attention to you and we care," 14th Circuit Solicitor Duffie Stone said. "But most important, you're not putting anything over on us."
Under one new policy, participants must complete 16 hours of community service in the third and final phase of the program. Previously, logging service hours was a low-level punishment for those who were late to appointments or had problems with drug testing. Instead, Dean wanted participants to make it part of their recovery to give to the community they had taken from.
That impact adds up.
Before the Solicitor's Office took over the private drug court in 2009, it was averaging about eight new participants each year. In 2012, it served 37 people convicted of nonviolent crimes.
Upon completion of the program, which takes about a year, participants' pending charges are expunged.
But that comes after a long road of drug testing and treatment for substance abuse and mental health. Dean and her team have increased random drug testing, requiring participants to make a call every morning to find out whether they owe a sample.
At any time, they might also get a knock on the door from prevention-services investigator Larry Laatsch, "the keeper of the random," Dean said. He was hired by the Solicitor's Office as both an enforcer and counselor.
"We're not trying to catch people," court director Mike Lee said. "It puts a structure in place that would at least give them a second thought about using (drugs)."
Since 2009, 73 percent of participants have graduated from Beaufort County's drug court. The White House estimates 46 percent to 57 percent of participants graduate from similar programs nationwide.
The court's recidivism rate of 11 percent -- the proportion of graduates who are re-arrested -- is also better than the national average, which is 25 percent, according to the National Association of Drug Court Professionals.
Beaufort County's Juvenile Multi-Disciplinary Court, launched in 2010, has a recidivism rate of 15 percent.
Stone said he expects this year's rates, which will be released in January, to be about the same.
A 23-year-old woman in court Tuesday has already decided she won't be one of the few graduates arrested again. She's getting closer to beating her heroin addiction, which drove her to commit forgery last spring and slip up over the summer.
After a weeklong incarceration, she's now on her last strike with a new attitude.
"To go to jail and know I put myself there ... I realized I was trying to do it on my own," she said. "If you're willing to commit to it and take the help that's given to you, I know I saw the changes in my life."
Follow reporter Rebecca Lurye on Twitter at twitter.com/IPBG_Rebecca.