OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) — If not for Oklahoma's drug court program, Cameron Rian Shores says he would be dead.

"I can wake up and my life is not in chaos. Every day I don't have to be sick and tired of being sick and tired," he said.

Shores, 26, has been a drug addict for a decade. What started as a way to fit in with the cool crowd eventually sent his life spiraling out of control, he said.

For years, methamphetamine, heroine, Xanax and other drugs dominated his life. After numerous drug arrests, Shores was confident he would spend years in prison.

But after learning he qualified for the state's drug court program, he jumped at the opportunity for a second chance at life, he said.

"I'm so grateful because without this program I would have been dead, in prison or still back on the streets. And that is the one thing I never want to have to go through again," Shores told The Oklahoman .

Shores is one of about 4,000 active drug court participants in Oklahoma who receive treatment, counseling, drug testing and other services as an alternative to prison. He also lives in a sober living house in Oklahoma City.

"It's really helping your life. It's getting you clean. It's getting you sober. It's teaching you principles," Shores said. "It's either do drugs, live that life and die, or get clean, get sober, be proud, have respect for yourself."

The program typically lasts between 18 and 24 months. A participant could remain in the program longer due to setbacks, such as failing drug tests or missing court.

Participants plead guilty to their cases to enter the program. Nearly 70 percent of participants successfully complete drug court.

When participants graduate, their charges are dismissed. But failure means prison.

"These people have prison in the balance," Oklahoma County District Judge Kenneth Stoner said.

Stoner presides over Oklahoma County's drug/DUI court. To qualify, a potential participant must be a non-violent offender, have no prior gang or firearm-related arrests and suffer from a substance abuse disorder that is driving criminal behavior, the judge said. The district attorney's office ultimately decides who gets in.

"For the right people, where addiction is the underlying issue and if they're non-violent offenders, we can hold them accountable but give them the treatment and the tools and the oversight and the encouragement to build a flourishing life and be healthy people," Stoner said.

The judge noted that addiction is the underlying issue in about 75 percent of all criminal cases in the state, and drug court is more "transformational" than prison.

"Our prisons should be very different places than they are because right now they're graduate schools for criminality," Stoner said. "We're sending too many people to prison for too long and it's too expensive and they're not coming out better."

Stoner said drug court costs less, is more humane and encouraging, and helps the participants learn how to be productive members of society. The judge said the program needs to continue to expand.

"We have to double and triple down on our drug courts because they work so well," Stoner said. "We're heading in the right direction but we have a long way to go."

The judge said therapeutic services begin on an outpatient basis. If a participant needs more intensive treatment, inpatient care is available but there often is a waiting list.

District Judge Michael Tupper presides over the drug court in Cleveland County. He said drug courts are important simply "because they work."

"The criminal justice system is increasingly recognizing that substance use disorder is a disease. Like most diseases, addiction can be treated effectively and recovery is possible," Tupper said. "Drug courts are a manifestation of this reality. Substance use disorder and other mental illnesses are at the root of much criminal activity.

"So in effectively treating the underlying problem, you consequently reduce the criminal activity."

Terri White, Commissioner of the Oklahoma Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services, said too many in the state are incarcerated due to untreated brain disease.

"We have a means to fix this," White said. "Drug court is just one of several initiatives that are part of a smart on crime approach to addressing alternatives to incarceration with appropriate treatment services."

The mental health agency provides certified treatment services for the drug court program. Oklahoma has 58 state-funded drug courts serving 73 counties.

"Treatment is the means to address the problem," White said. "If untreated addiction is the reason people are coming into contact with the criminal justice system, then treating the addiction is the solution."

The average annual cost for an inmate held in either a minimum- or medium-security prison is about $17,000, according to the Oklahoma Department of Corrections.

Drug court costs about $5,000 a year per participant, according to the mental health agency.

Jeff Dismukes, the agency spokesman, said the drug court program not only saves tax dollars but saves lives.

"It just makes sense. It costs less to do it this way, you have better long-term results and, frankly, it's better for the future of our communities in the state," Dismukes said.

The mental health agency recently followed more than 4,000 drug court participants for five years after admission to the program. The study found that in the five-year period, the participants earned more than $200 million in total wages, the agency reported.

Had those same drug court participants instead gone to prison for an average of three years, it would have cost taxpayers about $200 million, Dismukes said.

Drug court graduates also are less likely to reoffend.

After being released from prison, a former inmate has a 23.4 percent chance of reoffending within the first three years of release, the agency reported. Drug court graduates have a 7.9 percent chance of reoffending within those first three years.

Many drug court participants also see life improvements during their time in the program.

The agency reported 39 percent of drug court participants enter the program unemployed. By graduation, only 2 percent are unemployed.

Between entry and graduation to drug court, participants see an increase in monthly income as well. Many also obtain GED diplomas, get private insurance and reunite with their children, the agency reported.

Dismukes said the program is tough and "anything but a free pass."

"It's a heck of a lot easier probably for someone to go through the criminal justice system and take their punishment than it is to have to meet the demands of drug court," Dismukes said. "That's why it's a good program. You really have to work at recovery."

When starting the program, participants not only are trying to get sober but to balance their real lives with weekly court visits, counseling sessions and drug tests. Failing to meet the demands of drug court could result in sanctions, such as community service or time in jail.

Shores, who started drug court in August, said the program first overwhelmed him. He wasn't ready to surrender to it, he said.

"Being in the real world, you have freedom and you have choices," Shores said. "The hardest thing for a drug addict is knowing you have a choice."

After entering the program, he couldn't pass a drug test for months, he said.

"I kept getting high because that's all I've known," Shores said. "I didn't want me to stop."

After being sent back to jail, he finally had a "spiritual awakening" during a Narcotics Anonymous meeting.

"I lost the desire to get high again," he said.

When he was released from jail, he told drug court officials he was ready to kick his addiction but needed help. Shortly after, he was prescribed medication to help get him off drugs.

During a court appearance July 5, Shores announced he was 150 days sober.

"I never thought that I would quit using drugs, let alone be sober for 150 days in drug court," Shores told Judge Stoner. "I know for sure drug court has saved my life and for that I am grateful."

Shores then asked, "May I please phase up?" The judge replied, "Yes, you may."

Fellow drug court participants in the courtroom then stood and clapped.

"I feel like you've come so far," the judge told Shores. "You're doing really well."

Shores advanced to phase three. Drug court has five phases, each with specific treatment plans and recovery tactics.

Shores said it's hard going through tough times without using but he's taking it "one day at a time."

"Feelings are new to me. Dealing with life on life's terms is tough especially when you have nothing to cover it up with," he said.

Since starting drug court, Shores has had various labor jobs. However, he said it's been difficult finding a job that will work with his drug court schedule. He currently works in sales.

When Shores graduates drug court, he plans to move to Texas and help run his father's dating consultant company.

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Information from: The Oklahoman, http://www.newsok.com