Houston County kicks off drug court

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Posted: Saturday, March 23, 2013 4:45 pm

A few words of encouragement can go a long way toward helping turn a person’s life around.

District Court Judge Lori Ingram said rewards are just one of the many tools used in the recently launched drug court in Houston County.

“It is designed to treat addicted individuals and give them the tools they need to change their lives,” Ingram said. “There are very few families that have not been touched by addiction in some way. Sometimes it’s harder for some than others to stop. The purpose is to keep people clean so they won’t commit crimes.”

Eighty percent of criminal offenders abuse alcohol or other drugs. Half of all jail and prison inmates are clinically addicted. Sixty percent of people arrested for most types of crimes test positive for illegal drugs at the time of their arrest, according to the National Association of Drug Court Professionals.

Kelly Saucer, a drug court specialist for the state Administrative Office of Courts, said with the recent addition of drug court for the 20th Judicial District, which includes Houston and Henry counties, only one county remains without a drug court in the state of Alabama. She said only Talladega County has no drug court.

Saucer said there are 70 adult drugs courts across the state, with each one slightly varying on how they’re run. But Ingram said each candidate for drug court in Houston County must first be approved by the district attorney.

Nationally, drug court started in 1989 in Miami and began a few years later in Mobile.

“In Alabama we’ve got all but one county covered, but we’re still continuing to grow in capacity,” Saucer said. “We still have room to grow for the number of people drug court is serving.”

Saucer said drug court helps address a state-wide problem of prison overcrowding.

“We’re quickly approaching 200 percent capacity in the state prisons. If you look at the amount of funding that goes to the Department of Corrections, it’s a big chunk,” Saucer said. “There’s no reason at this point we should be sending non-violent criminals to prison. Prison is not rehab. You’re sending them in there and they’re coming out worse off.”

Saucer said admittedly it’s not going to solve the problem of prison overcrowding, but it can serve as part of the solution.

“The end goal is to have a law abiding self-supporting citizen and productive member of the community,” Saucer said. “One of the main reasons why drug court works so well is drug courts have the ability to keep people monitored.”

Five people have been accepted into Houston County drug court, which meets every two weeks in front of Ingram.

Ingram said a drug court team composed of judges, law enforcement and substance abuse treatment providers meet before drug court every two weeks to discuss the progress of the cases in drug court.

“They’re required to show up, and if they fail to appear I have to issue a warrant for their arrest,” Ingram said.

 

Three track program

Ingram leads the program with a rewards and sanctions focus. Something as simple as a judge clapping for someone in drug court can serve as a reward.

“It’s not necessarily the size of the reward it’s just somebody showing concern for them,” Ingram said.

Ingram recently explained how drug court includes three tracks. She said all three tracks require the defendant to plead guilty to their pending felony charge.

During track one, Ingram said if each defendant accepted has successfully completed drug court the charge can either be reduced to a misdemeanor or dismissed.

She said the acceptance into track two of drug court can be a condition of their court ordered probation after they’ve pleaded guilty to their charge.

Ingram also explained people can be accepted into track three as an alternative to a probation revocation.

Ingram said people do not have to specifically be charged with a drug crime to be accepted into drug court, but it does have to drug-related.

She said people also have to be at least 19 years old or older and a resident of Henry or Houston County to be accepted into drug court.

“We aren’t doing it for misdemeanors,” she said.

She said people charged with and convicted of violent crimes, burglaries, sexual assaults, drug trafficking, manufacturing or distribution are not eligible for drug court.

“We’re trying to break the cycle,” Ingram said. “Hopefully by breaking the cycle of drug abuse they can get treatment and not reoffend.”

As part of drug court each defendant must pay several fees, which include a $500 drug testing fee to SpectraCare, a $200 district attorney fee, a $100 drug court fee and the cost of any substance abuse treatment.

It typically will take a year to 18 months to successfully complete drug court. During that time defendants are drug tested at least once a week, and sometimes more often.

“We’re dealing with people who’re dependant on drugs, and as long as they’re showing up and going through treatment they should be able to work their way out,” Ingram said.

District Attorney Doug Valeska said even though he’s agreed to work with a drug court in Houston County he still has reservations about it.

“I have mixed feelings, and we have a pre-trial deferment program already. I’ve agreed to give it a chance and have an open mind,” Valeska said. “I do not believe it’s a sickness, this is something they choose to do. If I can save a human being and help turn lives around then I’m all for that, but the concerns I have about drug court are whether or not these people are sincere. I didn’t say there couldn’t be a slip. I understand as the district attorney things are going to occur. I have confidence Judge Ingram will do things to try and get their attention.”

Valeska said who is admitted into drug court is a decision only he can make.

“Actually, whether they’re admitted to drug court is my decision. I’m going to look at the offense, what was involved and whether they have a record and their evaluation from the committee,” Valeska said.

 

Two-year process

Local judicial officials have worked for more than two years to get an adult drug court started in Houston County. Ingram said drug court for both Houston and Henry counties will be funded through a $30,000 grant.

Ingram said judicial officials are organizing a drug court seminar on April 19, which will be open to prosecutors, local defense lawyers, judges and people involved with local treatment facilities.

“We’re trying to get to the non-violent offenders who’re drug dependent,” Ingram said. “The goal is to reduce recidivism and prevent relapse.”

Houston County presiding Circuit Court Judge Butch Binford said the judicial district is in its early stages of developing drug court. He called drug court an intense effort by the court system geared toward helping drug offenders kick their addictions.

“I don’t think it’s going to eliminate the drug problem. No one is claiming that, but hopefully we can stop repeat drug offenders from returning to the court system,” Binford said. “It’s not an easy road for someone who is drug court. A person who is in drug court is heavily monitored.”

Binford said the program wasn’t necessarily designed as an alternative to prison, but as an appropriate option for probation candidates.

“It’s not a way of getting out of jail free,” Binford said. “The other option often is drug treatment in the state penitentiary.”

Dothan attorney Cada Carter said he recently had his first client approved for Houston County Drug Court.

“There’s a learning curve here for all of us because it’s still pretty new,” Carter said. “I believe everybody deserves a second chance. But you’ve got to take advantage of it. You’ve got to follow the rules or you’re not going to make it.”

Attorney Tom Smith said he and his law partner, attorney Shaun McGhee, have clients who are in the process of applying for drug court.

Smith applauded the judges and district attorney’s office for making drug court an option.

“I think it’s a real positive thing. Unfortunately people become addicted, and even though it’s a crime that doesn’t seem to be enough incentive to keep them from using again,” Smith said. “They’re more closely monitored and that’s really what they need. This is giving people another chance to get straightened out without necessarily having to go to prison.”

Prison population explosion in the United States

1 in 100 U.S. citizens is now confined in jail or prison.

The U.S. incarcerates more people per capita than 26 of the largest European nations.

Substance abuse connection

80% of offenders abuse alcohol or other drugs.

50% of jail and prison inmates are clinically addicted.

60% of individuals arrested for most types of crimes test positive for illicit drugs at arrest.

Imprisonment has little effect on drug abuse

60 – 80% of drug abusers commit a new crime (typically a drug-driven crime) after release from prison.

Approximately 95 percent return to drug abuse after release from prison.

Accountability is the key

Unless they are regularly supervised by a judge, 60 to 80 percent of addicted offenders drop out of treatment early.

Drug Courts Ensure Compliance

Unless substance abusing/addicted offenders are regularly supervised by a judge and held accountable, 70 percent drop out of treatment prematurely.

Drug courts provide more comprehensive and closer supervision than other community-based supervision programs.

Drug courts are six times more likely to keep offenders in treatment long enough for them to get better.

Source: National Association of Drug Court Professionals website

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