Drug court program graduates 100th participant
by Jessica Loeding
Mar 30, 2014 | 4100 views | 0 0 comments | 44 44 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Drug Court Presiding Judge Scott Smith with Drug Court Coordinator Melissa Knight at the Frank Moore Administration and Judicial Center in Cartersville. SKIP BUTLER/The Daily Tribune News
Drug Court Presiding Judge Scott Smith with Drug Court Coordinator Melissa Knight at the Frank Moore Administration and Judicial Center in Cartersville. SKIP BUTLER/The Daily Tribune News
The Cherokee Circuit Drug Court reached a milestone earlier this month when the 6-year-old program graduated it’s 100th participant.

Began in July 2008, the drug court is a five-phase intervention program for adults lasting at least 18 months. Participants must have pled guilty to one or more non-violent felony drug-related offense and experience difficulty remaining clean or sober.

With 67 individuals — 45 from Bartow and 21 from Gordon County — currently taking part, Superior Court Judge Scott Smith, who heads the program, said graduating 100 of 235 total enrollees speaks to the court’s success.

“... That’s a pretty big accomplishment for a program that really just started out of nowhere. I mean, we really didn’t have a budget when we got started, and through a lot of hard work and cooperation and effort, ... we were able to develop a pretty successful program so far,” he said.

To be eligible for drug court, participants must meet certain criteria, including being a felony offender and an addict.

“... You have to be evaluated by our clinical staff, and … you have to have a clinical diagnosis as an addict. And what happens is our treatment staff ... will go evaluate them, and then they will come back and tell us what their assessment finds,” Smith said. “And, if the assessment finds that they’re appropriate for drug court — that is they do have an addiction problem — then the staff meets every Friday before we go into court, and one of the things we do in staffing is we go through a list of folks who are potential candidates. Every discipline has a voice — probation; our treatment staff; Miss [Melissa] Knight, who is the coordinator case manager; law enforcement; prosecutors; defense attorneys — all discuss the potential this person has, and then we take a vote more or less whether we think they should be included in drug court. You have to go through a screened process and you have to be approved by the staff is how you actually get in.”

Just as certain parameters must be met to be accepted, key factors will eliminate a person from consideration for the program.

“We don’t let anyone in who has ever been convicted of drug selling or drug trafficking. You don’t ever want to put somebody in with users if they have a history of dealing. Dealers and users do not mix well,” Smith said.

A history of violent offenses or sexual offenses will exclude an offender as well. For those convicted of home invasion or burglary, drug court would allow enrollment of the offender with the victim’s agreement.

“Some victims don’t go along with that, some of them do. The ones that have been allowed into drug court that have

committed that type of offense have generally done very well,” Smith said. “Most burglaries are driven by a drug problem. People are breaking in trying to steal stuff to fuel the habit that they have, same thing with thefts and forgeries.

“So not everyone who comes into drug court is necessarily charged with a drug offense. They may be charged with some theft of a lawnmower or a weedeater. They may be charged with breaking into someone’s car or something like that, but ultimately, if those kind of offenses are the subject offense for them to be considering drug court, we always check with the victim before we allow them to be included.”

Through the drug court, participants receive daily group or individual treatment, attend weekly court, fall under the supervision by surveillance officers, work or attend school, follow a curfew, and undergo addictions meetings and classes on social skills, life skills and anger management. Currently, 58 of the 67 enrollees are employed, and 40 of the 235 total individuals inducted have earned their GED or degree.

Should participants fail to comply with the guidelines of the program, sanctions or termination may be applied.

“There are a number of options that we use for sanctions, ranging from community service to we’ll give them a day at the landfill where they have to go down and work at the landfill. We’ll put them in jail,” Smith said. “There is a set amount of time that we give for relapses. For instance, if you test positive on the first relapse then you automatically have a seven-day jail sanction. The second relapse is a 14-day stint and then a third is 30 days. Now you’re subject to being terminated after three positive tests, and most of these folks who come into this program are on probation. They come to us as a probation verification. Most of our participants come in that way, so they’ve got some serious incarceration time hanging over their head if they don’t complete this program.”

A recent look at the drug court’s recidivism rate for the 100 graduates shows 22 percent reoffended. The court follows graduates for five years.

“... Some of those were very minor, like probation violations for maybe, I think, one was a DUI ... but anyways, now some go from a small misdemeanor — which that’s not small, don’t get me wrong — but from a misdemeanor to some have actually gone out and used again and tested positive,” Coordinator Case Manager Melissa Knight said. “But 22 out of the 100 we’ve graduated is [an] extremely good rate, especially compared to some of the other ones we’ve heard about in conferences and everything like that. I don’t know everybody’s numbers, but that’s a pretty good recidivism rate.”

“Seventy-eight percent, then, of the people that graduate so far have remained outside of the criminal justice system, which is much higher than the numbers you would get if you were to poll regular probation or the prison system or something like that,” Smith said. “The numbers really support the success of the accountability course in Georgia. That’s not just numbers as far as graduates and recidivism rates, but it’s the cost of not having to incarcerate these people and having to feed and house them in a prison or a jail, as opposed to this type of system, it saves the taxpayers hundreds of thousands of dollars.”

Georgia’s Council on Criminal Justice Reform began in 2011 advocating for increased funding and use of accountability court programs like the Cherokee Judicial Drug Court. With prison bed space an issue at every level, evaluations of prison sentences for non-violent drug offenders dumped more offenders into supervised release programs, such as probation and parole.

Whether the answer is supervised release, accountability courts or prison, Smith said no one method will solve the problem. The solution begins at a much earlier stage in the cycle.

“I don’t know that there’s any one answer to that problem. I mean, it’s going to take a change of society. We are a use-driven society right now, and you see that not only in methamphetamine and the rising use of heroin that we’re experiencing now in this area but also with the pain pill and pain management issues that’s been facing Georgia for the last couple of years,” Smith said. “... Until we get to the point that we, as a society, decide that you can’t cure what’s bothering you by taking something, we’re always going to have this problem.

“But what we have to do is to work with it and I do think accountability courts is a step in the right direction. ... The federal prison system is experiencing what the states have been experiencing for years and that’s an overcrowding problem. I don’t think the lightening of federal drug sentences is intended to help the problem as much as it is to deal with the practicality of how do you house all of these prisoners that they have now.”

While Smith does not deny that offenders may attempt to avoid jail time through the drug court, both he and Knight said those people typically do not succeed.

“That’s one of the things they look at when they evaluate them is the readiness to accept change ... They have to change the people that they hang around with. They have to change the places that you’re used to staying and going and they have to change the things that they do,” he said. “... We do have folks that come into drug court that just are not in drug court for the right reasons, and usually we figure that out pretty quick. If somebody’s getting in drug court just to get out of jail, generally they’re not going to do well.”

“It’s within a month that they’re back in jail and awaiting a revocation because it’s pretty clear who wants it and who doesn’t within a few weeks,” Knight added.

On the other hand, many times those with an extensive criminal history do the best.

“... Some of those people really do the best in drug court because those folks have just come to the end of the rope, and it’s time to make a change and they suddenly realize that. Some of our most positive results have been from folks who have a very thick progression file,” Smith said.

Knight held up a recent graduate as an example of how decades of addiction led to a revolution.

“... We just graduated a gentleman who had been in addiction for over 30 years. So you can imagine just how many times he had been in and out of jail and his file is pretty thick as well, and he’s probably one of our biggest success stories,” she said. “He started out at the homeless shelter, really didn’t have a relationship with his children because of his years of drug abuse, and it’s just amazing the turnaround that we see from day one to the day they graduate.”

Drug court, however, is not for everyone.

“Not everybody succeeds. We have some that come in and give it a try, and they just can’t break the cycle of addiction and they can’t break the habits that they had,” Smith said. “It’s unfortunate, but you know, drug court’s not going to cure everybody and I don’t think anybody who works in a drug court would tell you that. They would be lying to you if they did.”

With a staff of nine and a total budget upward of $360,000, the return on investment for the community comes down to cost savings, according to the court officials.

“... What’s at the bottom, that large number you see [$3,978,945 — $2,604,797 in Bartow and $1,374,148 in Gordon] is what it would have cost if you had taken all of these folks and just put them in jail or prison for the times they’ve actually been in this program. Now that’s an estimation, but when you factor in the amount of time that these folks have been here and have been clean and have been sober, they have not been visiting local hospitals, they have not been running up costs for overdose things such as that, they have not been committing crimes that causes people’s insurance rates to go up, they have not been damaging property which causes folks to come out of pocket to replace things,” Smith said. “They are working. ... So these folks are making a living, earning income, paying taxes, supporting the general fund of the county instead of taking away from it, and there’s really no way to numerically give you an exact number of how that saves the county money. But it doesn’t take a whole lot of common sense to figure out that if you’ve got somebody actually paying taxes rather than living off taxes that the amount of positive impact that has financially on your county is, you know, it’s incredible.”

Funding for the nine employees — Knight, Smith, two treatment counselors, two surveillance deputies, probation officer, public defenders and district attorney’s office — and operations comes from participant fees, Drug Abuse, Treatment and Education funds, state monies and grants.

Knight said the drug court program receives $230,000 through DATE funds and participant fees, with the remaining $135,000 from grants.

The 501(c)3 tax-exempt program also welcomes community support whether financial or participation.

“Employers who are looking for folks to work for them, you know, who have opportunities for folks to come in at ground-level employment. I think our folks may make excellent employees. They’re drug-tested frequently. They’re required to be on time. Our surveillance officers check on them, make sure they’re getting to work on time. They’re not allowed to lay around and lay out of work. I think they make great employees,” Smith said. “That kind of thing is helpful to us. And anything that somebody feels could be useful, we’ll sit and talk to them. We’re open.”

Knight said incentive offers, medical donations and other services go “beyond words.”

“I know we talked about sanctions, but we actually do — just as a drug court team — we do participant of the month and we buy gift cards,” she said. “... But, you know, a lot of these people, like he says, are at the homeless shelter. They really have nothing, and when they do get an apartment they still don’t really have anything to put in it. The Good Neighbor Homeless Shelter is amazing helping them find beds and furniture and microwave, dishes, things like that, but really any donations that the community would like to offer is just, I can’t tell you how much our participants appreciate it.”

With the implementation phase complete, the drug court now looks to sustain the program.

“... That is, we want to maintain a concrete service that we’re providing here and to maintain the level of success that our graduates are having right now. ... We’re trying to be more attentive to mental health issues with our participants and offer more services in that regard. ... We’re also trying to work in other avenues with some of the physical damages they’ve done to themselves, losing their teeth, things such as that,” Smith said. “... We’d like to explore other things we could do for transportation. A lot of our folks don’t have driver’s license and things such as that, but there are lots of things that drug courts can do to continue to better the service we give to the participant as they make this change in their life because a lot of these folks are really coming from ground zero. I mean, they have nothing. We’re not trying to give anybody anything, but we’re trying to give them a way to earn their respectability and their success in the future.”