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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Big STEP toward sobriety

Charlena Holt graduates today  from a federal court program called the Sobriety Treatment and Education Program. Holt once spent $170 a day on meth. 
 (Brian Plonka / The Spokesman-Review)

At 31, Charlena Holt has battled drug addiction almost half her life – moving from marijuana to methamphetamine to heroin and back to meth.

She permanently lost custody of her two small sons during her drug odyssey.

She introduced her 43-year-old mother to heroin, then saw her die of a heroin overdose eight years ago.

To support her addiction, Holt bought computer equipment and counterfeited money orders. When she got busted in 2003 in a North Spokane apartment, she fled the state and learned a new scam: washing $1 and $5 bills to turn them into $100s.

“I was pretty far into my addiction at that point,” Holt said Wednesday. She was counterfeiting enough money to support her $170-a-day meth habit, shooting up the drug five times a day.

Meth was never hard to find in Spokane, Holt said. She just needed the money to score.

“I would go weeks without sleeping, I really would,” she said. She was delusional, paranoid. “It was really bad.”

Arrested a second time by federal agents, she faced a lengthy prison term when she pleaded guilty in U.S. District Court in early 2006 to conspiracy to counterfeit money orders.

Then she was offered a deal by Senior Judge Frem Nielsen that Holt says turned her life around.

After serving a few months in prison, Holt was asked if she wanted to be among the first defendants in the Eastern District of Washington to enroll in an experimental drug court program called Sobriety Treatment and Education Program, or STEP.

At 1:30 today in U.S. District Court in downtown Spokane, Holt and two other participants will be among the first graduates of the program.Five others, including David McConnell and Shawn Morefield, graduated in late June.

The Eastern District of Washington, headquartered in Spokane, was among the first half-dozen federal jurisdictions in the United States to start the drug court program, now being tested by other federal districts, including Idaho.

“Rather than sending these offenders back to prison, federal courts in this district can now congratulate the offenders for turning their lives around and becoming upstanding and contributing members of the community,” Nielsen said of the program he volunteered to oversee.

U.S. Attorney Jim McDevitt, whose office initially expressed skepticism, now sees the program’s usefulness.

A “healthy dose of education and treatment goes a long way toward reducing the effects of criminal behavior in our community,” he said.

As a defendant caught up in the federal criminal justice system, Holt was surprised to learn the people she thought were trying to put her in prison were more interested in keeping her out and clean.

While on supervised release, she shed her drug-riddled past. She divorced her husband, who she said remains in the world of drugs and crime.

Holt got a job at a fast-food restaurant. She moved into a group home for recovering addicts and attended monthly meetings for the past year.

At the meetings, she and other defendants in STEP would meet around a courtroom table with the judge, a prosecutor, a public defender, a probation officer and drug counselors.

Individually, the recovering addicts discussed what they were doing with their lives and their goals for the next month.

For participants facing job or housing difficulties, team members offered advice and assistance.

Holt initially had weekly urinalysis tests, then twice-monthly tests.

“I’ve been clean since I got in the program,” she said. “A couple of people have relapsed, but they don’t try to send them to jail for it. They put you in treatment and give them more help.”

Assistant U.S. Attorney Jill Bolton, the prosecutor who volunteered to be the U.S. Attorney Office representative on the STEP team, said only nonviolent offenders are candidates for the program. Since its inception, the program has had 39 participants, 14 of whom have been terminated for various reasons, including absconding and recurring addictions.

“I saw it as an opportunity to address drug-offender recidivism under an effective, new approach,” Bolton said Wednesday. While getting individual supervision by the STEP team, participants also get more coaching and assistance to help them stay out of trouble and drug-free, Bolton said.

“I see it as a model for supervision of federal offenders,” she said.

Holt said the encouraging words she received from the federal judge at one of the meetings helped her.

“I remember him telling me, ‘Charlena, I saw you when you first came in here and look at you now.’ He just, you know, stated how proud he was to look at the accomplishments I’d made.

“It showed some recognition, and it really made me feel good.”

After graduating today, Holt has her eyes set on college.

As for other drug addicts, she said: “I would tell them that I believe that the ‘feds’ saved my life. There is hope. I really, really thought I was hopeless. I didn’t ever think I’d be able to stay clean, and I really am, and I love it.”