Douglas W. Hedger (BA ’87) has witnessed firsthand the devastating effects of addiction. As a criminal defense attorney in Henderson, Nevada, he worked with many clients who for years had been caught in a seemingly endless cycle of substance abuse and crime. “I saw the connection of drugs and alcohol, and co-occurring disorders as well, and how that would influence their criminal activity,” he says.
Not long after he was elected to the Henderson Municipal Court bench in 2003, Hedger decided that he needed to do something to help these individuals break out of the cycle and learn how to lead a positive, healthy life. He realized that with each repeated offense, the penalty would have to keep increasing, even for minor misdemeanors. “I think that was my awakening,” he says. “I thought, ‘Okay, for this person, it’s the tenth time. They’re going to do the maximum for this misdemeanor. I have to give them six months in jail or else the court is a joke. But it makes no sense because even when they do their six months, I’m going to see them two weeks after they get out of jail, because they will still have their addiction.’ At that point it kind of clicked. That’s when I thought, ‘I have to do something here.’”
He started the ABC (Assistance in Breaking the Cycle) Court in Henderson, with the mission to help habitual offenders by designing and implementing ways to address substance abuse issues, treat mental health problems, and give life skills training. Individuals are assigned a case manager, who walks them through each phase of the program and individualizes the process to fit their unique needs. They are placed in a sober living facility while they work to recover from their addiction, and then the court helps them to develop the skills they need to successfully transition into a new, stable lifestyle.
“They start with getting into counseling, but then as they progress with getting their addiction under control, they start working on the life skills,” Hedger explains. “Many of them have none. They’ve never had a job; they didn’t finish high school. We work with them to get their GED, to get job training, to learn how to fill out an application and do an interview.”
Heather, one of the ABC court’s most recent graduates, is an extraordinary example of dedication in making the effort to turn her life around. Her recovery wasn’t easy, Hedger explains, and even more difficult because she’d become accustomed to her lifestyle after working as a prostitute for years. Making the life changes necessary to start at an entry-level, minimum-wage job in her late twenties was a challenge for Heather, “but she's done it,” Hedger says, “and she's been so focused on wanting to change her life that she's been able to do that. It took some time for her mindset to change, but she's thirteen months clean now. She’s got a full time job, she's got a bank account, she’s working in an industry now where she has the ability to get further licensing and promote up the ladder in terms of her field of work. She's proud of herself for turning her life around.”
The ABC Court has been recognized by the federal government and received two substantial federal grants to infuse additional money and expand the program. The program also receives support from physicians and dentists in the community to get dental work and medical care for those who need it. Local businesses work with the court to provide jobs for program graduates. Individuals are given all the assistance they need to recover from the damaging physical, mental, and emotional effects of their addictions and start a new life. “Rather than just a drug court, which is a great vehicle, this is kind of all-encompassing,” Hedger says. “[We] address all the issues to actually give the person a shot at becoming a productive citizen. And we’ve seen a lot of success.”
But the individuals who graduate from the ABC Court aren’t the only ones who benefit from its impact. Helping these people, who would otherwise continue cycling in and out of prison, takes a load off of taxpayers in Henderson as well. “In our city, it costs about $115 a day to house somebody in jail and that’s the taxpayers paying that,” Hedger says. “When this is a homeless, alcohol-addicted individual who’s trespassing somewhere, do we want to be paying $115 a day to house him, versus put him in a program where he can stop the cycle, get a job, and become a productive citizen?” The daily cost for each person in the ABC Court is only $7, compared to the jail system’s $115, so to Hedger, it just made sense.
Since the court was established in 2009, 43 people have successfully graduated from the program. Only 9 have reoffended. Hedger says that the other graduates have all undergone remarkable changes. “Every single one of them, over the course of a little more than a year, has done a 180-degree change in their lives. They’ve gone from nothing except being in jail, to reuniting with their family, working, living on their own, having a family. They’re all great stories and it’s rewarding.”
One individual that especially stood out to Judge Hedger was a man named Stewart, who had struggled with alcoholism for 50 years. “Most of the time, the individuals who were coming in never had really accomplished much in life. They'd just been involved in drugs or alcohol forever,” Hedger says. “But Stewart actually had a very successful real estate career, grew up in a middle class family, went to high school and college. [He] fought in Vietnam. And then, as the alcoholism got more pronounced in his life, everything just spiraled down. His wife left him after thirty years of marriage and he went from all that to literally homeless. He went through an entire inheritance and bank account and was sleeping on the street.” But through the ABC court, Stewart was able to overcome his addiction, rebuild relationships with his family, and turn his life around. “The best part of my job is seeing the graduates go on and change their lives,” Hedger says.
The greatest compliment Judge Hedger says he ever received from his clients was their gratitude for his compassion and respect. “I’ve tried to carry that over as a judge too,” he says. “I think that’s what most people are looking for: ‘I know I made a mistake, but just treat me like a human being,’ and I think that I did get a lot of that perspective from BYU. . . . Getting them to see their own potential and then making the choice [to change] is the key factor for these individuals.””