The coordinator of Nelson County’s new adult drug court, Christopher Weidl, said his approach with court participants is to meet them where they are. It starts with taking a genuine interest in their experiences.
“They have a story that led them to where they’re at. So I want to understand that story,” he told the Nelson County Times.
The 36-year-old Weidl was hired in May to lead the county’s first drug court program and brings more than 10 years of field experience to the role. He’ll be supervising participants through the 18-month intensive program: conducting frequent drug tests, monitoring participants’ progress, seeking out community partners and getting defendants’ families involved in their recovery.
The office of the Nelson County commonwealth’s attorney received a $700,000 federal grant this past October to fund the drug court for four years. Court participants will have to demonstrate extended sobriety, seek and maintain employment, and lead a crime-free life to graduate and have their charges reduced or dismissed.
Weidl has worked as an adult and a juvenile probation officer and most recently with the Offender Aid and Restoration, or OAR, nonprofit organization as the first coordinator of the Orange and Madison counties drug treatment court.
Nelson County and the commonwealth’s attorney’s office partnered with OAR in January to hire and employ Weidl; the probation agency provides pretrial and probation and misdemeanor probation supervision services in the city of Charlottesville and surrounding Nelson, Albemarle, Madison, Louisa, Goochland, Orange, Greene and Fluvanna counties.
Weidl currently lives in Waynesboro and hails from New Jersey, where he recalled growing up in a criminal justice family. Weidl’s father and uncle worked as state troopers, and another uncle worked in the Drug Enforcement Agency.
“So I just went to college kind of assuming that I would become a cop.”
Instead, Weidl said he became more interested in community corrections policy and in courses geared toward mental health and substance abuse and their interactions with the criminal justice system. It led to work in probations and for a supportive housing program in Trenton, New Jersey.
“Chris’ experience as a probation officer working with high-need populations made him uniquely qualified to coordinate Drug Court in Nelson County,” Commonwealth’s Attorney Daniel Rutherford said in a statement.
“I know he shares our goals of improving the lives of our participants, and the safety of our community, by holding them accountable. This will be accomplished by ensuring they leave our program clean, sober, housed, employed, and ready to become contributing members of society again.”
Interrupting the cycle
Nelson drug court participants will receive group and individual treatment through Region Ten’s Nelson Counseling Center in Lovingston. Weidl will meet weekly with Circuit Court Judge Michael Doucette, Rutherford, and defense attorneys and treatment representatives to discuss each participants’ progress.
Drug court sessions in circuit court will involve much more engagement with Doucette, serving as drug court judge, than defendants will likely be accustomed to in criminal court proceedings. Participants will be rewarded for positive behaviors and receive sanctions, such as community service or brief stays in jail, for negative behaviors.
It’s no get-out-of-jail-free card; Weidl said the program will be hard work for defendants.
“Many offenders have been cycling in and out of jail throughout their lives. So it gives them an opportunity to be in the community and be faced with all the common triggers and situations that they’re in that they frequently encounter that lead them to relapse and use.”
Behind bars, offenders mostly aren’t met with the same temptations, Weidl explained.
“You do your time in jail, you come out and then you’re flooded with all these situations and triggers again. So being in the community and learning how to respond to them — they learn how to live an ideally substance-free life within the community.”
Weidl said some of his most rewarding work experiences have been seeing the transformation in long-term substance-using offenders.
“Like somebody who’s maybe in their mid-20s and has been using since they were 16. And they’ve been in and out of jail, been in and out of inpatient, and created all these problems with their family, their relationships, they may have children that they don’t have custody of kind of thing, and seeing that person fight, fight the fight, and midway through drug court, they start to put some good, sober time together, and now everybody in the community who has known them longer than I’ve known them through their worst times are starting to see the crazy change."
It’s hearing family and friends say they’ve never seen the person look so healthy, or that the way they interact and communicate with others has totally changed.
“Just seeing the community recognize the progress from some of these people who have struggled for a lifetime.”