Two judges who have been leaders in the struggle to rescue lives and communities affected by substance abuse were among the honorees at the Tennessee Association of Recovery Court Professionals' 14th Annual Recovery Court Conference, held recently in Murfreesboro. Eighth Judicial District Criminal Court Judge Shayne Sexton and 13th Judicial District General Sessions Court Judge Bratten Cook both received the 2018 Making a Difference Award at the three-day conference.
Two state legislators were also honored at the conference. Rep. William Lamberth and Sen. Ferrell Haile both won the TARCP's Rod Bragg Recovery Hero Award. An additional award, the Christy Vernon Spirit Award, went to Doug Beecham, the director of the 23rd Judicial District Drug Court.
Judge Sexton has been the Criminal Court judge in the 8th Judicial District since 1998. He started the 8th Judicial District Recovery Court in September 2005 as a way to try and break the cycle that saw the same people coming into his courtroom again and again on drug-related or drug-fueled charges.
Sandy Webber, the 8th district's Recovery Court coordinator, said at the conference that Judge Sexton has made a real difference in countless lives through his work with the Recovery Court. New participants are inspired to better their lives by Judge Sexton's personal interest in their well-being and as a result of his signature "grit talks."
"He tells them it doesn't matter where you come from, what has happened, whether you're educated or not, if you have the grit, that is the resolve, fortitude, determination, and tenacity, then you can change your life and beat addiction," Webber said.
Accepting the award, Judge Sexton said that the work Recovery Court professionals do each day "is a labor of love, and it requires all of us to give everything that we've got."
He said that all who have been inspired to start Recovery Courts have done so because they realized "the old way wasn't working; it just wasn't doing the job."
The "new way" that Recovery Courts point to involves "building up our participants and hoping that they accept responsibility" and do the heavy lifting once they are enrolled in a program.
"I'm honored," he said at the end of his comments. "I look around the room and I see tons of judges who deserve the award much more than I do."
Judge Cook has been the General Sessions Court Judge in DeKalb County since 1998. During his time on the bench he has instituted numerous programs designed to help juveniles and adults with a host of issues related to substance abuse. These include: safe driving schools, anger management classes, domestic violence counseling, and more. In 2002, Judge Cook co-founded the DeKalb County Juvenile Drug Court. This program was so successful that in 2005 Judge Cook began a recovery court for adults in the county as well.
"The thing that I've learned the most about Judge Cook is that it takes a heart of gold to do what he does," Rhonda Harpole, the adult case manager for the DeKalb County Recovery Court, said at the conference. "Every week I get to watch him with our clients showing his compassion, his love, and his care for each one of them. None of our clients wonder 'does the judge love or care about me?' They all know he does."
In accepting the award, Judge Cook said that his philosophy about recovery court has always revolved around the idea that "we should treat the people that we're mad at and punish the ones we're afraid of."
"People that we have in drug court, we're not afraid of them," Judge Cook said. "We're mad at them. We're mad that they stole mama's check book or stole their parents' property and went and pawned it. We're not afraid of them. They need treatment."
That philosophy is supported by a belief system that makes Judge Cook feel that he is fortunate to be able to do what he does to help people dealing with substance abuse.
"I've said it many times, it's a blessing for me," he said. "And I trust that you all believe that you have been blessed with the opportunity to help people. I think we were put on earth to do that. I think God expects that of us. And I'm just thankful every day that I have that opportunity."
Rep. Lamberth is the incoming Majority Leader of the Tennessee House of Representatives. During his time in office, he has taken a prominent role in the fight against substance abuse, recently serving on a special task force designed to combat the opioid crisis.
Rep. Lamberth thanked the assembled crowd of Recovery Court professionals for their dedicated work.
"You guys meet people where they are, not where you wish they were, not where you hope they get to, but where they actually are," he said. "And, every single one of the people that come through your programs, those are our friends and neighbors; those are our cousins, aunts, uncles, moms, dads. As long as I'm blessed to be in the State House of Representatives, I will continue to fight for you to have whatever resources you need to continue to save lives and improve lives."
Sen. Haile has taken a number of important steps to try and mitigate the state's substance abuse crisis over the course of his career, including by helping to establish "Safe Baby Courts" to protect young children in at-risk environments. For this accomplishment and others, Sen. Haile was named the Legislator of the Year by the Tennessee Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASA) Association in 2017.
Sen. Haile was unable to attend the conference, but Sumner County General Sessions Court Judge James Hunter accepted the award on his behalf. Judge Hunter said that Sen. Haile is a staunch supporter of Recovery Court programs and would undoubtedly want to thank everyone at the conference for their hard work if he were there.
"It all goes to help us do what we do naturally and that is to show these participants that we care for them," Judge Hunter said. "If you can do that, that is a huge motivator for someone who is in Recovery Court to change their life and get off drugs, and that is what it is all about."
Judge Suzanne Lockert-Mash presented the Christy Vernon Spirit Award to Doug Beecham, who she said has been "instrumental in building the 23rd Judicial District Recovery Court since its inception nearly 20 years ago."
Judge Lockert-Mash called Beecham a tireless advocate for those going through the program.
'Doug is 24/7 constantly," she said. "If Doug ever quit and went somewhere else, we'd have to hire three people just to replace him. He has high energy and most of that comes from his love and desire to help those who need that help."
Beecham said that he got sober 16 years ago and that the work he does is his way of giving back.
"I'm very passionate about my work because I owe it to the next person to stay sober," he said.
Beecham also expressed gratitude to those who gave him the award and for the staff members who help make the 23rd Judicial District Recovery Court a success.
"I just want to thank you very much from the bottom of my heart, and most of all I want to thank the team that is behind me because when you have the best team in the world, they can make you shine better than you really shine and that's what I have," he said. "I have the best team you could ever even ask for."