An alternative to jail offers a 2nd chance at a new life

by Nancy McCarthy
Staff Writer

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Created 10 months ago in Judge Gregory Lewis' Orange County municipal court, the 321 Club is an experiment in how to close the revolving door between freedom and county jail that faces addicts convicted of misdemeanors.

Judge Gregory H. Lewis holds
a one-year sobriety chip that was
recently awarded to a 321 Club
member by Alcoholics Anonymous


Lewis estimates the program could save the county more than a million and a half dollars a year -- the amount that would otherwise be spent to house 70 people in jail at $2,000 per month. Because it is a new program, its success has yet to be measured. But only a couple of members have been charged with a new offense or failed to show up in court.

Of far greater importance to Lewis and public defender Sue Green, who represents each of the club members, is the support they receive, both from other offenders and from Lewis and Green. "They look at us as their family," says Green.

Required to plead guilty

Different from its more formal counterparts in California superior courts, the 321 Club (named after the department Lewis presided over when the group was formed) receives no funding, has no formal probation, and requires each member to plead guilty to the misdemeanor charged -- everything from petty theft to possession of drug paraphernalia to being drunk in public.

In return for a stay of what is usually the maximum sentence, each defendant promises not to break any laws and is placed on informal probation, with a requirement in most cases to attend daily Alcoholics Anonymous or Narcotics Anonymous meetings. Individual probation conditions include finding a job, drug testing, rehabilitation programs, haircuts.

Violating probation can mean a return to jail for the maximum sentence -- sometimes as much as 1,000 days or more.

The right mindset

Not all offenders qualify. Sue Green, herself a recovering alcoholic with an outgoing personality and warm sense of humor, evaluates her clients for what she calls "the right mindset."

Those who make excuses, blame others or do not acknowledge their addiction are not eligible. They can get a better offer in another courtroom by pleading guilty and spending 30 days in jail, Green explains.

"But if they're amenable and really want to commit to changing," she says, they can join the club. "I'm very direct. I don't want to set them up for failure. I want these people to be successful."

Pete Huelsenbeck, supervising district attorney at central Orange County Municipal Court, says his office supports Lewis' program. "I think he's done a fine job trying to identify people who have problems and work with them to resolve the problems," he said. "If he can keep some of these people out of jail, he's making space for more serious offenders."

Lewis long ago realized that about 70 percent of the offenders he saw were charged with drug-related crimes. In 1990, he helped create an anti-drug film called Choices, which he showed at local high schools, taking county jail inmates with him to ensure the greatest impact on his young audiences.

But it was the words of an alcoholic woman facing a second DUI rap that launched the 321 Club. When Lewis ordered her to stop drinking, she said she could not because "I am a hopeless alcoholic."

"When she said that, I stopped," Lewis remembers. "I said, 'You may be an alcoholic, but surely you're not hopeless.' "

He ordered her to join AA and enroll in a counseling program. "She got a job, dumped her boyfriend, went to AA, rode her bike everywhere," Lewis said. "She never stopped drinking, but she cut way down. She is no longer in the court system but is productive and achieved some happiness."

With five other women, the club began. Membership is up to 70, and other judges now refer potential members. Each monthly meeting in Lewis' Santa Ana courtroom is attended by prospective members both in and out of custody.

The all-day session is a combination of AA meeting and court appearance; each member must report in and present proof of compliance with probation requirements, as well as deliver a progress report.

The hearing is punctuated by laughter, tears, confidence, confusion, fear, sharing. Lewis is both the sympathetic listener, offering support and encouragement, and the stern father who several times threatens to "drop the hammer."

Honesty is the bottom line, and trust is the currency.

At a recent meeting, with seven inmates in yellow jumpsuits watching from a holding cell, the judge greeted the club warmly. "You're not in custody and are on the road to recovery," he said. "I can't think of any finer company. You are really, really good people."

"I'm Sue, and I'm an alcoholic," announced Green, who then praised her clients for their commitment to sobriety and support for one another. She thanked Lewis and the court staff, telling her clients, "The judge knows all of you and cares about all of you."

"You have touched my soul," she said. "This is a special, special thing in court to have all this care and love."

Throughout the day, Lewis called the club members forward for a progress report.

He asked their drug of choice, and responses ran the gamut: cocaine, heroin, methamphetamine, Wild Turkey.

Asked his favorite drug, Patrick Prendergast, a prospective member, shot back, "Which decade?" Lewis replied, "You're being very defensive and very flip."

A self-described chicken thief, Patrick said he'd been sober "45 miserable days." He tentatively committed to join, but a skeptical Lewis asked him to return the next day.

Because so many reported relapses at the meeting, there is considerable talk of relapse as either a part of recovery or a return to jail. "We look for progress, not perfection," Green reminds them.

Nicole Casey, accompanied by her 2-year-old daughter Mindy, described relapsing and fleeing to San Diego. She called her drug counselor, who contacted Lewis. The judge gave her one day to return to Orange County and take a drug test.

Originally charged with possession of methamphetamine, her relapse included eating speed and developing four bleeding ulcers as a result. She spent the day before the hearing in the emergency room, where doctors prescribed a strong but addictive painkiller. Casey said she refused the pills and was taking half-strength aspirin with codeine. She also said she had been clean for 26 days.

In spite of Lewis' advice at an earlier hearing, Casey had moved in with a drug-using friend. "You cannot be around drugs," Lewis reminded her. "You cannot be in places where drugs are being used. You cannot be around people who use."

A young woman attending her second meeting came under fire for having the wrong attitude. Although she presented an AA chip denoting one month of sobriety, most doubted her commitment.

"Your attitude is telling me you're not taking this seriously," Lewis told her, noting she failed to show up for an appointment with a counselor. He ordered her to bring her AA sponsor to the next meeting.

Barry Sawin, a one-armed tree trimmer, did take his addiction seriously, and the previous month gave Lewis his one-year chip. Lewis accepted the token on behalf of the 321 Club, and noting Sowan's mismatched disability and career choice, suggested the club members could be capable of doing anything they want.

Several clients are referred to representatives of three local rehab programs who attended the club meeting. A terrified teenager, fighting tears, was ordered to enroll in one of the programs. By the end of the day, two veteran club members had befriended the girl and told Lewis they would watch over her.

Jimmy Woodruff, who admitted he was "spinning," was sent outside the courtroom for a chat with David Nisson, an attorney who assists Lewis and Green.

A recovering alcoholic, Nisson puts in one day a month for the 321 Club, which he said puts a crimp in his practice. But it's a worthy cause, he said, explaining, "We've created something special. There's tremendous freedom here to stand up and admit, 'I'm an alcoholic.' "

One club member, an attorney, now works for Nisson.

In addition to the courtroom time, Green and Lewis put in numerous hours throughout the month helping the club members.

They monitor some of those most seriously at risk and stay in touch with others.

During the lunch break, Lewis walked the hallway outside the courtroom, smiling, shaking hands and offering support. Club members shared recent experiences, anxious to tell Lewis about an obstacle overcome.

He and Green credit one another with the 321 Club's success. "They're worth their weight in gold," says Lewis of Green and other attorneys involved with the club. "What better way could you spend your day in law than trying to rehabilitate people."

"It's very unusual for criminal defendants to see a judge and a lawyer who care about them," said Carol Lavacot, senior deputy public defender. "It's very uplifting."