Controversy is escalating surrounding an article written by Reveal for the Center for Investigative Reporting journalists Amy Julia Harris and Shoshana Walter, alleging misconduct at Southern Oklahoma Addiction Recovery in Ada.
In the article, Harris and Walter also allege impropriety by former District Judge and longtime Pontotoc County Drug Court Judge Thomas Landrith. A prominent figure in SOAR’s founding, Landrith established the county’s Drug Court program in 1997.
The article accuses SOAR officials of forcing program participants to work “for free” under the threat of prison time if the participants do not comply. It also alleges SOAR officials require program participants to apply for Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits through the Oklahoma Department of Human Services, then “confiscate” participants’ electronic benefit cards for shelter use.
The allegations were made during interviews that Harris and Walter say were conducted with over a dozen former SOAR program participants, seven of whom are quoted in the article. The bulk of the allegations are contained in the former participants’ quotes.
One former participant, Dustin Barnes, alleges that he was made to clean brush in a creek bed behind Landrith’s house. Barnes is quoted describing the work as “Cleaning his gutters. Mowing his lawn. Doing hedges: and adds, “(Landrith) was there hanging out, like he was one of the guys.”
Harris and Walter state directly, “Other programs that resemble SOAR pay their participants for their labor. And most don’t have their participants perform free yard work for a judge.”
Officials connected with SOAR and familiar with the county’s drug court program insist that Barnes’ allegations are misleading and do not accurately describe either the program itself or the work done at Landrith’s residence — work which those same officials insist was not done for free.
SOAR Board of Directors President Duane Murray said the board has called an emergency meeting to address the allegations contained in the article and to draft a response. Murray said he anticipated that response would be provided to The Ada News on Friday.
Landrith declined to comment Friday by phone, saying he preferred to wait for the SOAR Board of Directors to release its statement before answering any questions.
Harris and Walter stated, “Landrith currently is an unpaid SOAR board member – a position he’s held since 2014 – and has sent at least nine defendants from his drug court to SOAR since 2010, records from the Oklahoma Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services show.”
Landrith was instrumental in founding SOAR as an alternative to incarceration at a time when Pontotoc County was suffering from pronounced overpopulation in the county’s then-aging jail. However, despite his influence in getting the program up and running, federal tax records indicate Landrith did not become a SOAR board member until early 2015, months after his retirement as a district judge — a time when he no longer had the legal authority to sentence individuals to participate in programs like SOAR.
While Landrith does continue to serve voluntarily as the county’s drug court judge, drug courts do not follow the familiar procedure typical of a criminal court.
Pontotoc County Drug Court judges do not sentence participants. Participation in drug court is an alternative to receiving a sentence in a criminal case. Instead, Drug Court judges preside over a process that brings participants before a panel of 10 or more members who then vote on a sanction — a recommended course of treatment based on the individual participant’s needs.
In Pontotoc County, a drug court judge would not unilaterally sanction a participant and arbitrarily determine where that participant was to be sent.