Hearing the lived experience of someone with personal knowledge of substance use and recovery can help build the courage for an individual to engage in the recovery process. This is what public defender recovery coach can offer.
Following a two-year grant-funded pilot project, six full-time peer recovery coaches were hired to work in public defender corporations across West Virginia. On July 1, 2019, these recovery coaches joined a mental health/substance use treatment coordinator (also operating in a public defender corporation) to assess criminal defendants for substance use issues at the earliest stage of the criminal justice process. Recovery coaches identify defendants’ substance use treatment needs and link these individuals to treatment programs that concurrently provide treatment and meet the judicial requirements of release. In the first 12 months of the project, the recovery coaches received more than 800 public defender client referrals from 23 counties across 14 judicial circuits.
It was an obvious choice for public defenders to work alongside peer recovery coaches who can intervene into their clients’ substance use disorders while meeting the needs of holistic criminal defense. Anecdotally, public defenders can attest to the impact of substance use on their clients and its relationship to their underlying criminal charges. The sad reality is many public defender clients detox in jails or miss court dates secondary to their substance use or an overdose. A December 2017 report issued by the West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources (DHHR), Bureau for Public Health underscores the connection between incarceration and the fatal consequences of substance use. As the report attests, overdose potential plays a dangerous role for incarcerated substance users. After a period of sustained sobriety in the controlled environment of jail, substance users are at greatest risk of overdose in the two weeks-to-one month following release from incarceration. Public defender recovery coaches became the solution to this life-threatening problem because recovery coaches work with defendants during pretrial, arranging for treatment program admission immediately following release from incarceration.
Public defenders rely on the recovery coaches to use their training and lived experience to engage and motivate defendants with substance use disorders before referring and linking these criminal defendants to treatment. When recovery coaches receive referrals from public defenders, they determine the kind of treatment needed by balancing a defendant’s substance use severity and judicial requirements of release. The recovery coaches measure the strengths, skills, and resources defendants bring to the recovery process by utilizing the William White and William Cloud Recovery Capital Scale. On the Recovery Capital Scale, defendants self-identify their short-term and long-term goals as well as affirming the resources they possess that will support their recovery. Recovery coaches work with community treatment programs to ensure defendants have treatment opportunities that are available immediately upon release from incarceration that support their recovery goals. Recovery coaches also follow up with defendants at six, twelve, and eighteen months post-referral. Some defendants require additional interventions and treatment referrals, while others engage the recovery coaches to discuss cravings and reentry into the community.
The majority of public defender clients who have been referred to the recovery coaches have been incarcerated at the time of their referrals. Linkage to treatment programs upon release from incarceration, as a condition of that release, has served defendants by eliminating a gap that could increase their overdose risk. The next phase of this project includes expansion to all public defender corporations across the state and enhancement to include referrals from court-appointed panel attorneys, with the goal of intervening early into the lives of criminal defendants.
If you are interested in learning more about the public defender recovery coach project or the open recovery coach position serving the First and Second Judicial Circuits (the northern panhandle), please contact Stephanne Thornton at Public Defender Services: (304) 352-0169.
 West Virginia Violence and Injury Prevention Center. (2017) West Virginia Drug Overdose Deaths in 2016: Healthcare Systems Utilization, Risk Factors, and Opportunities for Intervention, retrieved from https://dev-dhhrtwo.wv.gov/bph/Documents/ODCP%20Reports%202017/2016%20West%20Virginia%20Overdose%20Fatality%20Analysis_004302018.pdf
 Merrall, E. L., Kariminia, A., Binswanger, I. A., Hobbs, M. S., Farrell, M., Marsden, J., Hutchinson, S. J., & Bird, S. M. (2010). Meta-analysis of drug-related deaths soon after release from prison. Addiction (Abingdon, England), 105(9), 1545–1554. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1360-0443.2010.02990.x
 White, W. & Cloud, W. (2008). Recovery capital: A primer for addictions professionals. Counselor, 9(5), 22-27, retrieved from http://www.williamwhitepapers.com/pr/2008RecoveryCapitalPrimer.pdf