Drug court helps non-violent offenders

Published 11:27 pm Monday, January 5, 2009

The 17th Judicial Drug Court isn’t even a year old yet and it hasn’t run its first full cycle, but already the team in charge of this alternate means of dealing with addicts in the court system are optimistic, even excited.

Greg Griggers, who serves as the “gatekeeper” for the official team and performs the legal screening for each applicant, said the idea behind drug court is to help addicts receive the help they need to become drug-free, rather than toss non-violent offenders with possesion charges into jails.

“Not just anyone can get into drug court,” Griggers said. “These are addicts who are charged with possession or some other criminal charge they commit because they are addicts. For example, we have a couple in the drug court program who have cases of forgery because they forged the checks to buy drugs.”

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Non-violent offenders who have generally clean records may apply and be accepted into this program that ultimately gives the offender a second chance. But don’t confuse it with a “get out of jail free card,” warned Griggers. There is atonement that is required after an offender pleads guilty to possession of drugs or paraphernalia.

The program allows the participant to enter a guilty plea, then commit to more than a year of various steps meant to free the addict of his addiction and pay his debt to the court. The 17th Judicial Court judge, Eddie Hardaway, may sanction the drug addict to a rehabilitation program, order him to pay fines and court costs, complete the GED process, perform community service, find employment, take drug screenings or other orders that are directed toward rehab.

According to Joane Holloway, the executive director for the program based in Livingston, the extra work “is definitely worth the effort.” Holloway said that even though the program only began in September in Marengo, Sumter and Greene counties, she can already see a difference in the lives of those who have chosen this path over the traditional court battle and, perhaps, prison sentence meant to punish rather than offer treatment and a real chance to recover from addiction.

“We’re starting off very well,” Holloway said. “We work very closely with these offenders. I truly believe we’re doing what we set out to do. The participants see we care about them and they open up and work toward the healing process. I can’t tell you how many of them I’ve heard say nobody ever cared about them before.”

Griggers is encouraged as well.

“Some of them have been fun to watch,” Griggers said. “We’ve got one young lady who was just into everything. She was running with a bad crowd so she could get drugs. Now, she’s got a job, a promotion and she’s paying her fees. She’s done everything we asked her to do, and she’s proud of herself. We have another who has been reunited with her kids. One guy is a now a full-time chef.

“It will help the circuit dramatically if we reduce the drug use and the crimes that go along with that. It’s set up to help drug addicts. Based on the drug courts that are operating, these programs are successful in that there is less liklihood of them going back and re-offending if they stick with the program.”

The district attorney and Holloway are only two people who form the drug court team for the 17th Judicial Circuit. In addition, there is Hardaway, defense attorney David Shaw, Greene County district court representative Doris Jordan, Thomas Lewis of the Sumter County sheriff’s office and Crystal Walter, the court referral officer with the West Alabama Mental Health Center.

Together, this team stays on top of the program. Griggers said the program offers offenders in the program a new beginning without the weight of a criminal record, but that is only if they complete every step and submit to after-care for another six months upon completing the year-long recovery and atonement.

“Our biggest goal is to make these offenders drug-free,” Griggers said. “The biggest challenge is staying financially afloat. We’re still working out some of the rough spots, but that’s part of anything new.”

The drug court program is completely voluntary. Withdrawing from the program requires the judge to pass sentence that can be from a year and a day to up to 10 years in jail.

“It is so contrary to what a prosecutor usually does,” Griggers said. “I feel good about this,” citing the members of the team who have worked hard to make it succeed, the effort to reduce the prison population, and a chance to restore the lives of the offenders and their families.

While Holloway and Griggers agree the project is rewarding, both worry about funding and resources, “which really all comes back to funding,” Griggers said, “because if we have the money, we can find the resources.”

The DA’s hope is that the program will become self-supporting as it grows, with the participants paying for the program though the imposed fines and fees. For now, however, the 10 who are in the program are giving this distinguished drug court team the drive to carry it forward with grants and grit.

Holloway said the new court is gaining the approval of some outside sources as well.

“The community is hearing about it,” she said, “and I’m not getting complaints, but rather offers to help us make this a success.”