Quad Cities, IL/IA

Working with the community... for a healthier community.

When Getting Arrested Becomes An Opportunity To Heal


Getting arrested isn’t something most people think of as a positive
experience. For Leslie Caldwell, however, getting pulled over while
under the influence of alcohol changed the course of her life.

This wasn’t Caldwell’s first time driving under the influence (DUI), and
it wasn’t her first time being caught. She had four prior offenses; the
most recent where she was jailed for 35 days. As a single mother of
three young children, Caldwell knew that this arrest, as a repeat
offense, was much more serious and could result in a much longer time in
jail —and probably the loss of her children.

After her last arrest and incarceration, Caldwell swore she would never
drink and drive again, but while incarcerated, she didn’t learn about
her problem with alcohol and related depression, and she didn’t explore
treatment. She didn’t know where to get help. Three months later,
Caldwell was under the influence and behind the wheel again. Drinking
had become her way of coping and managing with life and parenting
stress, and she believed alcohol was helping her.

Caldwell’s story, unfortunately, is not unusual. Even when the warning
signs are there, many people have a difficult time reaching out for
help, although they realize they have a problem. Not only are people
with mental health and substance use concerns more likely to find their
way into the criminal justice system, they end up staying incarcerated
longer than individuals who were arrested for similar offenses who don’t
have these issues. They’re also at a higher risk of being homeless,
unemployed, and without family support — and this, in turn, places them
at higher risk for being rearrested later in life.

Specialty courts can offer helpful alternatives to incarceration
Specialty courts deal with specific cases, such as those involving
mental health, drugs, veteran’s issues, and domestic violence. These
courts work to identify people struggling with such problems and find
strategies to help them recover, live healthier, and make better
choices. Adults and youths can avoid jail or have their sentences
greatly reduced by agreeing to participate in community “diversion
programs” designed to help them heal. There are more than 3,000 program
sites across the country, many of which are supported with funding and
technical assistance by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services
Administration (SAMHSA), an agency in the U.S. Department of Health and
Human Services.

While it is most helpful to identify a person with mental health or
substance use issues before incarceration, there are different points at
which a person might be referred to a community program: when engaging
with law enforcement, at initial detention or a first court appearance,
in jails and courts, when released from jail and re-entering the
community, and during probation or parole. Any one of these points in
the process can be an opportunity to identify someone needing help so
that underlying concerns can be addressed and jail time can be
minimized. SAMHSA provides screening tools, technical assistance, and
other guidance to help mental health professionals, judges, law
enforcement officers, and others in the criminal justice system to
effectively use diversion programs for nonviolent offenders — and to
help the public to understand how these programs are good for
individuals, families, and communities.

These court-based programs can also give people with prior arrests who
are in recovery the opportunity to help others in similar situations.
Some are hired to help identify and work with those who have just
entered the system. These peers can more easily recognize the
circumstances involving mental health and substance use disorders that
can ultimately lead to an arrest. Their personal, lived experiences make
them valuable members of the treatment team as mentors, volunteers, or
paid specialists.

Jail diversion starts the healing process
In the last and most serious arrest, Caldwell was incarcerated for 18
days, during which her attorney told her about a DUI and substance abuse
treatment program as a possible option for release. She applied and was
accepted into a program referred to by the Behavioral Health Treatment
Court in McMinnville, Tenn., a program supported by a SAMHSA grant. She
received a lesser charge and was released to a substance abuse treatment
rehabilitation clinic, where she spent 36 days working on her sobriety.
After that, Caldwell had to commit to an 18-month DUI program. It
provided outpatient treatment three times each week and talk therapy
with a supportive counselor. She also talked with the counselor
intermittently if she was struggling with an issue or with her sobriety.

Three years later, Caldwell is still in recovery and visits the DUI
treatment program to stay connected to that support. She also regularly
does cognitive behavioral therapy worksheets to help her look at things
differently — from the negative and heavy, to the positive and hopeful.
She’s earned her GED high school equivalency and is in college, and she
works with a law firm. She’s aspiring to higher achievement — both for
her career and as a mother.

“I was really depressed and thought nobody could relate to me, so I
became a functional alcoholic,” said Caldwell. “Then I met other people
who were going through the same kind of struggle. That helped me to
start out and it helps me now. It’s so much easier doing this than
living with actions that I regretted.”

Caldwell completed the court-ordered diversion program successfully and
she continues a church-based recovery program now. The DUI program
continues to be a support as well, and she speaks with new groups of
students to share her story and offer understanding and hope. When she
has a bad day, she talks with her therapist and she has an exercise
routine to help manage the stress.

“I am a good mother now. The kids know that there are consequences for
their actions, and I don’t just let them do whatever they want, as they
could before,” said Caldwell. “They aren’t on the path I was on — they
have structure and are doing well in school. We’re all in a much better

For further information about specialty courts and jail diversion
programs or to learn more about mental illness and substance use
disorders, visit www.samhsa.gov/criminal-juvenile-justice.