Ben wasn’t your average soccer player. He was good — so good he traveled all over his home state of Florida to compete, on teams two years above his age group. That also meant that, at age 16, most of his teammates left for college. Ben was unsure what to do without them.

“I quit soccer,” he says. “Then I quit high school.”

A downward spiral

He had smoked pot for fun, but now his drug use expanded to ecstasy to enhance the party lifestyle he was quickly embracing. The first time he tried heroin, it was laid out in lines on a countertop, free to try.

“At first, I just snorted it on weekends and at parties,” Ben says. “Then a few weekdays. Soon, every day.” After a while, snorting wasn’t getting him high enough. So he taught himself to shoot up.

The next 10 years were cyclical: Ben would spiral in addiction until he had no job, no friends, no possessions or place to live. Desperate, he would check into a detox or rehab facility, or he’d be arrested and suffer through withdrawal in jail. He would stabilize long enough to gain back some of what he had lost, only to lose it again a few months later.

“I’ve overdosed three times,” he recalls. “I vaguely remember shooting up, immediately not being able to see and having a crazy headache. The next thing I remember is getting yelled at by a doctor in the ER, telling me I’m going to destroy my life, my mom sitting there crying.”

The turning point

In February 2010, Ben got arrested again. But instead of sending him to jail, the judge offered him treatment court, and he took it. It was a decision that saved his life.

Ben admits that it wasn’t a smooth ride, especially at the beginning. “I didn’t show up to outpatient, I ran from the courthouse,” he explains, “I relapsed again and again.” But this is where treatment court deviates from the traditional justice system: Instead of giving up on him, the treatment court team doubled their efforts to find a treatment plan that would work.

“They never gave up on me,” he says, his voice softening. “I love the people there — what they’re trying to do.”

'“If you want to have self-esteem, you have to do estimable things.”'

A positive trend

Ben’s story is more common than you might think. Over 3,100 treatment courts in the United States annually provide a life-saving alternative to incarceration and pathway to recovery for more than 140,000 individuals with substance use disorders and mental health conditions.

As the first public health approach to addiction in the justice system, these courts represent true criminal justice reform. Instead of discarding people who are sick, they connect them to a range of services to fit their needs, from evidence-based treatment such as medication-assisted treatment, to assistance with housing, employment and family reunification.

Ben graduated from treatment court in August 2014. He’s been sober for three years, two months. Recovery seems to impart wisdom on the now-35-year-old, who says things like, “If you want to have self-esteem, you have to do estimable things.” Ben has a full-time job with the Salvation Army, a place that was key to his recovery. Last week, he and his girlfriend closed on their first house. Yesterday, they planted mango seeds.

“Five years ago, I would have been plotting how to break into my neighbors’ houses,” reckons Ben. “Now, I mow the old lady’s yard next door — just because.”