By Anna-Claire Terry
In 2011, in the midst of the Meth epidemic in Lee County, court systems began to utilize Drug Court, a pretrial diversion program that allows defendants to be rehabilitated instead of facing sentencing. According to Judge Jake Walker and court administrator Trisha Campbell, the success rate of the program has been high. Drug Court is credited with helping people get their children back from state custody, finish school, get jobs and molding responsible citizens.
Drug Court is operated under alternative sentencing legislation. Walker said the program was created in the 80s in Dade County, Fla., in response to the cocaine problem, and the main point of the program is to prevent people form re-offending.
However, Drug Court is not limited to cocaine users. It is now used to help offenders of many class C, nonviolent felonies. Walker has even seen people charged with crimes like theft and credit card fraud come through Drug Court. Typically, qualifying cases are personal use drug cases and property cases in which the person has a drug problem.
“A lot of times, someone has to hit rock bottom before they will accept treatment,” Walker said. “Before this, there was really no way to bring treatment and the court system together. In one respect, you force treatment.”
When someone is convicted of a crime that meets Drug Court criteria, they apply to the program and are screened by the Court Referral Office. Then, the Drug Court committee, made up of Walker, Campbell, a defense attorney, the sheriff, and a representative of the district attorney among others, will review the CRO evaluation, along with the warrant and criminal history of the offender. Defendants not accepted into the program are returned to the traditional criminal docket. Those who are granted acceptance enter a guilty plea, and original sentencing is suspended pursuant to Drug Court action.
“After offenders complete the program, that guilty plea is set aside, and they can truly say ‘I have never been convicted of this crime,’” Walker said.
There are four phases of Drug Court. Participants are required to receive treatment, attend AA/NA meetings, volunteer 100 hours of their tine to community service and submit to random drug tests. Those who are able to work are required to get a job, and those who have not earned a GED are required to do so. Walker said it usually takes about a year to graduate from the program.
Drug Court is designed to be a forgiving program. According to Walker, addicts are not automatically kicked out of the program when they mess up. There is a sanction system, and jail time is used as punishment for not passing drug tests, not showing up to testing or treatment, or forging samples for tests.
“The message here is to be trustworthy,” Walker said. Campbell added that very few people come through the program without a sanction.
Participants are allowed to choose where they receive treatment, and Walker said about 90 percent choose Opelika Addiction Center through EAMC.
Both Walker and Campbell said the best function of this program is how it rebuilds the lives of people who graduate from Drug Court.
“We have had a lot of families be reunited, a lot of people who have recovered burned bridges, and a lot of people who have been able to go back to school and be turned away from the wrong path,” Walker said.
Walker said the program has helped people from all walks of life, and the drug problem is not isolated to one socioeconomic group.
“This program really holds people accountable,” Campbell said.
According to statistics, our Drug Court has transformed 44 graduates into productive citizens with only one known re-offender.