MADISON, W.Va. (AP) — Chelsea Carter's path to recovery from addiction started and ended with her standing before the same West Virginia judge.
But she traveled the distance between her first and last appearance in part because he got her the help she needed.
Carter returned to court Wednesday where felony charges were expunged from her record, bringing her case to a close.
A decade ago, the same judge ordered her to attend a drug court instead of sending her to prison. She underwent addiction counseling and successfully completely the court's requirements.
"I really believe that without the drug court process, I would be dead," Carter said after the hearing. "It's something that gave me my life back."
There are more than 3,000 such courts in all 50 states and several U.S. territories. According to the nonprofit National Association of Drug Court Professionals, these courts are a less costly alternative than sending offenders to prison.
Carter started smoking marijuana and drinking alcohol at age 12 at a friend's house. A cheerleader and gymnast, Carter moved on to prescription pain pills.
At age 16, on the same day of her grandmother's funeral, Carter's best friend died. To numb the pain, that day she first used OxyContin, which she said then was like meeting "the next love of my life." She would eventually start using needles to inject drugs.
"I thought I kept her busy enough," said Carter's mother, Sherry Dolan. "She was very active in school. I thought that would be enough. It just wasn't. She actually told me, 'Mom, I would have found it anyway.'"
In her late teens, Carter stole money from her parents and her grandmother to support her habit. With needle marks up and down her arms, she couldn't afford it anymore and at 19 started dating a drug dealer more than twice her age. Eventually she got caught up in a theft ring and was arrested.
"Pick your friends wisely, because old Chelsea picked friends who were not good people," Carter said. "I had people in my life who could've cared less if I died. But I still wanted to be their friend because it gave me what I needed."
Initially convicted and sentenced to 10 days in jail, Carter later failed a random drug test and was threatened with serving out a 2-to-20 year sentence unless she entered the drug court program.
Now 30, Carter accomplished that and much more. She earned a psychology degree from West Virginia State University, then a master's in social work from Concord University. She currently is the program manager and an addiction counselor at Ohio Valley Physicians in Logan.
She also serves on the boards for a county day report center for drug offenders and for a faith-based living facility that helps recovering male addicts ease back into society.
"Never believe that just because you're an addict now that you can't come out of it," Carter said. "Because I'm living proof that if you put your mind to do something different, that you can."
Supporters say drug courts hold offenders accountable, help reduce crime, save taxpayer money compared with prison costs, and reunify families. Three-fourths of drug court graduates nationwide remain arrest-free after leaving the program, National Association of Drug Court Professionals spokesman Chris Deutsch said. But he said only 60 percent of people who enter drug courts successfully complete it.
In a state of 1.8 million residents, more than 30,000 people are in drug treatment in West Virginia, which has the nation's highest drug overdose death rate.
Carter said she easily could have been one of them. Instead, she became a face of recovery.
U.S. Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, R-West Virginia, honored Carter last year in a floor speech calling for more drug recovery services. Carter also appeared at a panel discussion on the opioid epidemic with then-Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton in May 2016 in Charleston.
"I'm so very proud of her," Dolan said. "We came from finding needles and finding pills and finding her passed out to now she talks to people. She gives them hope. That's the most important thing. She gives everyone else hope as well."