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Probation From a Drug User’s Perspective — Failures of the Criminal Justice System

What’s probation been like for me? Has it made me a better person? Has it curbed my drug use? Has it done anything good for me, at all?

Ostensibly, the purpose of the criminal justice system is to get people’s lives on track. To right criminals’ wrongs. To bring justice to the world. That kind of stuff.

A common alternative to jail is probation, whereby criminals are required to maintain employment, check in with probation officers regularly, and be subject to drug screens.

I’ve found myself on probation three times now, all for drug use — more specifically, for violating T.C.A. §40-7-124, Possession of Drug Paraphernalia. I’ve never been in trouble for anything else.

What’s probation been like for me? Has it made me a better person? Has it curbed my drug use? Has it done anything good for me, at all?

Let’s find out.

About Me

I’m a long-term drug user. I’ve been using every day for over 9 years now. Opioids have been my primary drug of choice for about 6 years, the past 2.5 of which have been hallmarked by regular intravenous heroin use.

I’ve always been low-income. My mom was a long-term, seriously-problematic drug user who Dad and I left when I was 9. I am bisexual and am from rural Tennessee. I didn’t have insurance for much of my childhood and am still uninsured. I bring these things up because the stories of people like me aren’t well-represented.

I’m 24 years old and live in Martin, Tennessee — that’s in Northwest Tennessee, 10 minutes south of Kentucky and about an hour east of Arkansas — and am a self-employed writer.

How’d I Get on Probation in the First Place? — Chapter 1

In 2014, an on-campus college roommate reached out to either law enforcement or the University of Tennessee at Martin’s housing staff for my on-campus, in-dormitory use of cannabis.

Four RAs — resident assistants, as they’re called — marched into my dorm alongside two police officers. They claimed it was a routine room inspection and found a roach and some papers.

A few hours later, I found myself at Crisp Hall, UT Martin’s public safety building, slapped with my first two criminal charges: possession of controlled substance, Schedule VI, and possession of drug paraphernalia (violations of T.C.A. §39-17-418 and §39-17-425, respectively).

A month later, in July 2014, I found myself in Weakley County General Sessions court. The drug possession charge was dropped, thankfully, but the drug paraphernalia stuck. I was given a year’s probation and roughly $1,200 in probation and court fees.

I was forced to sign a probation contract and a plea agreement.

A month later, I was due to appear at my probation officer’s office for a monthly check-in. The probation office was a third-party entity which profited from its supervision of probationers.

What Was Probation Like? — Chapter 1

I was asked to present at that third-party entity’s office every month. I was required to pay an installment towards my probation and court fees every month. I was also forced to take an alcohol and drug evaluation, formally known as the Substance Abuse Subtle Screening Inventory (SASSI), at another third-party location not associated with the probation supervisory service provide.

Fortunately, because I was enrolled in courses at UT Martin, things like the SASSI evaluation was free at the school’s mental health department, Student Health & Counseling Services.

If you aren’t familiar with the SASSI, it’s similar to a fill-in-the-bubbles, Scantron-type test like you’d take in high school or college. You can google it if you’re interested.

Due to scoring high on the SASSI, I was asked to attend Narcotics Anonymous meetings twice weekly. This persisted for about two months before I was able to stop attending.

I never got a drug test. The probation officer didn’t want to interfere in my life. I think she understood that drug use shouldn’t be dealt with by the criminal justice system.

She — well, really, her employer and “the system” — just wanted money. She told me that from the jump. I’d heard people say it before, but it was at this point I understood that probation was all about money.

Every time I presented, I was scared I’d be drug tested. As a daily cannabis consumer — at the time, at least — I certainly would have failed every time. Although I hadn’t been formally diagnosed at this point, I very much dealt with at least one anxiety disorder and could have benefited from seeing a counselor. I’m glad the resources for mental health treatment were available to me at the time, but, due to stigma associated with seeking help for mental health disorders that are especially prevalent here in rural Tennessee, I hadn’t, at all, considered it.

I had to drive about 10 minutes from my place of residence to the probation officer’s place of work for monthly visits.

TL;DR (Too Long; Didn’t Read)

The only thing remotely helpful I got from probation was attending Narcotics Anonymous meetings for the first time. However, since I wasn’t ready to quit using drugs, I didn’t get anything from them.

I should have been asked to undergo a full mental health evaluation. This would have highlighted the underlying issues as to why I was using drugs.

Many probationers are unable to show up every month and pay money. This particular office required payment in the form of a money order, making things even more difficult for people who don’t have access to resources like transportation.

Many probationers fit this bill.

How’d I Get on Probation in the First Place? — Chapter 2

In March 2019, I got pulled over in Milan, Tennessee, for a seatbelt violation. Stupid me.

The officer asked to search. I said no. They brought a K9 and it alerted to the presence of drugs. I was found with “morphine” residue — was actually heroin — in a “cooker,” or a blank aluminum bottle cap that some use to dissolve drugs into an injectable solution, for which I was given possession of drug paraphernalia.

After that — and only after that — even though I was driving just fine, I was given the three standardized DUI field tests. I was charged with DUI, a total BS charge. I was asked to provide a blood sample to which I refused and was given Implied Consent, another BS charge due to the fact I shouldn’t have been charged with DUI in the first place.

I wasn’t able to prove that the vehicle was insured, although it was, and was charged with that, too.

I was put in jail then, luckily, bonded out thanks to help from my dad.

After monthly court hearings from April to July, I was given a plea deal of only possession of drug paraphernalia. My public defender, Jamie Kay Berkley — who was a great public defender, by the way; I can’t say enough good things about her — recommended that I take that plea deal.

Probation costs were about $500 and court fees were about $650. So, I’m working on paying off a total of roughly $1,150 for being found in possession of drug paraphernalia.

Not to mention the roughly $250 my dad was charged for bailing me out.

So, really, a total of $1,400. All for using drugs. Wow.

Oh, wait — I got my girlfriend’s car impounded, costing her another $200.

$1,600 total for using drugs.

God damn.

What Is Probation Like? — Chapter 2

I’m asked to present at a local, third-party entity’s office that provides supervisory services to Gibson County General Sessions court. This entity profits from providing these services.

This office is in Milan, a full 35 minutes away from where I live. I’ve been given one urine test so far, in the five or six months I’ve been on this probation, which was sent off to a lab that uses GCMS (gas chromatography, mass spectrometry) testing. GCMS is as strict as it gets in terms of urine testing, from what I understand.

The screen tested for the presence of five or six drugs and/or their metabolites.

I’m also forced to pay monthly installments toward court fees and probation expenses every month.

Again, I was asked to undergo a drug and alcohol evaluation. I had to pay $50 to a third-party entity this time. The counselor’s recommendation — the counselor who administered the test, that is — was for me to attend NA meetings regularly if I’m unable to abstain from the use of drugs, which, fortunately, I have been.

After a month-and-a-half of being on probation, I was arrested yet again for possession of drug paraphernalia. You can read the full story at “A Law Every Tennessean Should Know About,” but I shouldn’t have been charged with this because of T.C.A. 40–7–124 (that’s pronounced T C A, title 40, chapter 7, section 124, for the record).

T.C.A. 40–7–124 is a 2015 law that prevents Tennesseans who inform a presiding law enforcement officer (i.e., one that’s pulled you over or otherwise stopped you) about your possession of syringes that you’ve used as drug paraphernalia from being evidence used to charge you for possession of drug paraphernalia. Once being pulled over or otherwise stopped and before being searched, if you inform the officer about being in possession of syringes, you can’t be charged with or prosecuted for T.C.A. 39–17–425, possession of drug paraphernalia.

I should add that, due to my indigence (see: being broke), I couldn’t afford an attorney or to bail out. Because I had to visit my probation officer within 13 days of my arrest — remember how I’m required to check in every month? It just so happened that I was 13 days away from my next check-in date — and couldn’t afford to wait in jail to be appointed a public defender, I had to plead guilty to possession of drug paraphernalia, giving me on yet another drug paraphernalia charge.

It also put me on yet another probation. I was scared at this point. I’m not one to get arrested very often — or at least that’s what I thought.

This led me to enter a medication-assisted treatment (MAT) program, which practice opioid replacement therapy — a “Suboxone clinic,” in other words — just 4 days after being arrested. This was a great decision, but boydid it cost a lot of money. Also, I immediately began attending local Narcotics Anonymous meetings.

In 10 days, I’d gone to 6 meetings. I had financed the then-$843-a-month initial cost of entering a Suboxone program and filling a month’s prescription, not to mention manned up by immediately ceasing my heroin use following this arrest.

Despite these two factors, the probation officer couldn’t have cared less about my two accomplishments. I think these two things say a lot. A hell of a lot.

But the PO didn’t give a damn. That broke my heart.

Why wasn’t I given a pass on having to pay for, travel to, and take an alcohol and drug evaluation?

Why was I greeted with the words, “The only reason I didn’t violate you is because I didn’t have time to get around to it”?

Why wasn’t I congratulated for what I’d done?

Why wasn’t I, at the very least, given a high-five?

Why weren’t the costs of that MAT program supplemented by the state or, even, the City of Milan/Gibson County, the jurisdiction in which I was already on probation, or the City of Jackson/Madison County, the jurisdiction in which I had just been arrested?

Why wasn’t I even referred to a single fucking opioid replacement therapy practitioner?

I’m still on this probation today — well, both probations. I know it’s not wise to discuss it, but, what other drug users are sharing stories about their very personal experiences with the social services-criminal justice alliance? There are a few, certainly, but it’s important for me to share this information with the world.

I think it might help improve the treatment of drug use in modern American society — at least that’s what I hope.

TL;DR

I was wrongfully thrown in jail for DUI and Implied Consent charges that I 100% didn’t deserve. I incurred costs totaling $1,600 for eventually being charged with possession of drug paraphernalia.

I very much did deserve the drug paraphernalia charge.

Although I could have been violated and ultimately sent to jail for up to a year, my probation officer chose not to do so. I lucked up in this regard, in my opinion, although I’m not familiar with the personal experiences of other people who have been in this situation (i.e., being on probation, violating the terms of that probation, and what their probation officer or the presiding court of law decided to do).

I’m still on this probation today, which is slated to end about six months from now.

How’d I Get on Probation in the First Place? — Chapter 3

I mentioned above that I got arrested in September 2019 for being found in possession of drug paraphernalia.

Again, because I acted in concordance with T.C.A. 40–7–124, I shouldn’t have been charged with possession of drug paraphernalia or prosecuted for it. However, due to this law’s unfortunate obscurity, the arresting deputy wrongfully charged me with possession of drug paraphernalia.

Here’s how it happened.

I was leaving Jackson and was pulled over by a Madison County Sheriff’s Department deputy for speeding.

Speeding was the issue. If I weren’t speeding, I wouldn’t have been pulled over, and I would have made it home that night. Live and learn, hopefully, at least, right?

I was asked to consent to a search, to which I declined. A K9 was brought to the scene, where it alerted to the presence of drugs. No drugs were found. No drugs were in my vehicle, either. No drugs had been recently carried in the vehicle, too. Still, the K9 alerted.

Funny how K9s always alert on my vehicle. I’m sure it’s 100% legitimate and not bullshit at all.

Anyways.

I ended up getting charged with possession of drug paraphernalia due to being found with syringes, for which I was thrown in jail.

Every Tuesday morning — or maybe once every other Tuesday — recently-arrested, alleged criminals are arraigned in Madison County General Sessions court. Fortunately, it was Monday night.

Again, because I had to meet with my probation officer before I would have been appointed a public defender or found myself in court again, I was forced to plead guilty to a charge I legally — not just whining here, to be clear, I’m trying to reiterate that there was no legal basis for my charge thanks to T.C.A. 40–7–124 — didn’t deserve.

What Is Probation Like? — Chapter 3

I got put on unsupervised probation and was forced to pay roughly $600 over the course of a year.

I’m still paying this off.

The person whom I talked to when signing a probation agreement told me I’d have to pay $200-something within 3 weeks and pay the remainder off within a year. I was only able to pay that first installment about 2.5 months after my arrest, but I never faced any flak from any court staff members or probation officers, fortunately.

Since this is unsupervised probation, I’m not required to check in on a monthly basis or potentially be subject to drug screens.

I haven’t been provided any resources by Madison County, the City of Jackson, or any other entity.

Fortunately, I didn’t have to undergo another fucking alcohol and drug evaluation.

TL;DR

I was already on probation for possession of drug paraphernalia. A month-and-a-half in, I was arrested on another charge of possession of drug paraphernalia.

Due to my indigence, I had to plead guilty to that charge, though T.C.A. §40–7–124, a 5-year-old law, should have legally protected me from getting charged with it in the first place, let alone prosecuted for it.

Thanks to the fact I pled guilty, I paid about half of what I likely would have been charged in court fees — at least according to the court lady (I’m unaware of her official title) I talked to after pleading — if I had exercised my legal right to not plead guilty, given I would have ended up being charged with possession of drug paraphernalia.

Probation has been unsupervised, making things easier on me.

I wasn’t able to bond out, either, which also incentivized me to plead guilty.

How Could Probation Be Improved?

This question necessitates a complex, multi-faceted answer. There’s no simple fix for the modern American probation system.

The answer to this starts with not treating drug use as a criminal issue. At least, that is, where drug use doesn’t directly hurt the people who decide to use drugs.

For example, if people drive or work while drunk or fucked up and put people’s lives at stake in the process, criminal charges are at least sometimes appropriate. I don’t think this should be the first line of treatment, but it should certainly be available.

First off, and most importantly, I think all drugs should be made legal. This largely prevents almost-entirely-harmless problem drug users such as myself from being sentenced to probation as a result of drug use.

However, if drug decriminalization and legalization are off the table, here’s how the treatment of drug users by the American criminal justice system could be improved — in my opinion, of course.

Transportation issues shouldn’t be a factor. People shouldn’t be penalized for being unable to present at regularly-scheduled meetings with probation officers. People shouldn’t have to pay for things like alcohol and drug evaluations if they’re indigent. If probationers don’t have transportation, probation officers should come to them, or required meetings should be less frequent to make it more possible for probationers to actually attend them.

People should be required to have a full-scale psychiatric evaluation performed — not at their own cost, given they’re indigent, if not at no cost to everybody, regardless of financial standing — to uncover mental and physical health issues that lead to self-medication through drug use and other problematic forms of drug use.

Probationers should be able to consume cannabis, at the very least, if done so in an overall safe manner. I think mental health professionals should be involved in making this judgment, as chronic cannabis use can very well result in the worsening of existing mental health issues or the development of other disorders that weren’t previously present.

More specifically, long-term opioid users such as myself should be able to consume cannabis, as it’s been proven to improve the long-term substance use outcomes of people with opioid use disorders like me. I say this because cannabis very rarely injures or kills users, unlike opioids, especially unregulated opioids, like what are available to modern American illicit opioid users. Cannabis is a fine alternative to opioids in such people. Much research proven this to be true.

There are potential negative outcomes of this, though the benefits far outweigh the cons.

The high costs of court fees and probation fees make life difficult for long-term low-income substance use disorder sufferers like me. Thanks to these fees, in part, I struggle to afford paying for medication-assisted treatment program enrollment, which quite literally saves my life.

I also struggle to pay for everything else, in general, since probation diverts my money to pay wages of probation officers and ultimately end up as profit in the pockets of people who own third-party supervisory services businesses.

There are many other ways to improve probation. This isn’t an exhaustive list of the means that could improve modern American outcomes of people on probation in terms of long-term success.

What Is Probation Doing Right?

I like that alcohol and drug evaluations (e.g., SASSI) are required, but only because they are part of a comprehensive mental health evaluation.

Requiring people to maintain employment and show up to meetings on time instills a sense of responsibility in probationers.

Some probation officers who are nice, not intimidating, easy to talk to, understanding, and genuinely interested in the long-term positive outcome of their probationers — that’s the minority, most definitely — really do help correct probationers’ bad behaviors and instill good habits in them.

Probation should be a punishment that steers people away from making the bad decisions that resulted in their criminal charges. It shouldn’t suck money from their already-tight budgets, add charges onto their criminal histories, and otherwise make success more difficult to achieve.

Probation does some things right, but we need probation reform.

By Daniel Garrett

I'm a self-employed writer, long-term drug user, and resident of rural Tennessee. Find me on Twitter at @DanielGarrettHR or email me at danpgarr@ut.utm.edu.

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