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Chief justice pushing for
drug courts

Cobb says move may keep minor offenders out of prison

By Sheryl Marsh
smarsh@decaturdaily.com · 340-2437

Alabama Chief Justice Sue Bell Cobb’s effort to have a drug court in every county may keep minor drug offenders out of prison and overcome the fears about costs.

Offenders of minor drug charges are usually abusers of illegal substances, officials say.

“We have a serious drug problem in Alabama as well as a serious problem with prison overcrowding,” Cobb said, in a letter to the drug court task force she created. “The courts of Alabama can help solve these problems. Drug courts have given thousands of offenders the tools they need to defeat their addictions and learn to live a sober, productive life. Drug court graduates have avoided prison and for the most part, they are productive, drug-free tax-paying citizens.”

Striving to lower the state prison population, many counties have created alternative sentencing programs.

Complying with order

To comply with a federal court order, Morgan County established a Community Corrections program, but it does not include drug court at this time. The program has a director, case manager and administrative assistant who recently moved into a renovated office on the first floor of the courthouse.

Director Alison Nix said she is ready to receive clients to participate in such courses as anger management. Participants will be drug tested, also.

Long way off?

Some officials who serve on the Corrections Commission that governs the program say drug court is a long way off because it’s costly.

Presiding Circuit Judge Steve Haddock is chairman of the Corrections Commission. He said members have talked with officials in Shelby County and that community corrections there, which includes drug court, costs about $1.6 million annually.

“It’s also extremely labor intensive,” Haddock said. “You’ve got to have someone for record-keeping and checking participants for violation through drug testing.”

Haddock said money is an issue, as is the ability to hire employees for the program.

Drug court works in other counties and it didn’t take a truckload of money to get it started, officials said.

In Jefferson County

Jefferson County is a prime example. Retired Jefferson County District Court Judge Pete Johnson runs drug court there. He is also chairman of Cobb’s task force.

“It stops spending a lot of money for locking up people,” Johnson said. “Sentencing people to prison gets them out of the way awhile. If they get treatment in prison when they get out, they don’t ,have after care and they relapse.”

Johnson said cost should not hinder starting the program because financial aid is available.

“It’s expensive to a degree but there’s money available from the state,” Johnson said. “They’ve already made $50,000 available for Morgan County for treatment.”

Johnson said offenders pay to participate in drug court. That includes $300 for court costs and fees for drug testing.

He said Jefferson has collected more than $3 million from participants and the success rate is phenomenal.

“We’ve had over 2,400 people to graduate since 1996, which means they stayed clean for a year. We sentenced 659 to prison who relapsed. Judges have to realize going into it that relapse is a part of the addiction and that is to be expected.”

Community service

Also, he said participants must do community service.

Statistics from the Jefferson drug court since its inception in 1996 show that the program has saved taxpayers more than $36 million by keeping almost 5,000 people out of prison.

The recidivism rate holds steady at 15.25 percent.

“They’ve learned to live drug free, to control their addiction and they’ve learned relapse prevention,” said Johnson.

He said participants know the consequences if they turn back to old habits.

“We test regularly and when they test dirty they get locked up,” Johnson explained.

The first time they go to jail for one or two days and subsequently punishment increases. The fifth and final time they go to prison, Johnson said.

Cobb acknowledges the success of drug court and said that’s why she created a task force to establish a drug court in every county.

The chief justice said it’s better to get people help for their addictions.

“We want to be known for fixing people as opposed to simply filling prisons,” Cobb said in the letter.

Court pacesetter

Johnson said Decatur Municipal Court is a pacesetter for drug court.

“Judge Bill Cook has the first city drug court in the state, for misdemeanors,” Johnson said. “I got information to him to help them get started and was glad to do it. Hoover is working on getting one started.”

Participants in the city program have misdemeanor convictions such as illegal possession of marijuana and prescription drugs. Cook has a separate docket for drug court.

In county systems when participants complete drug court, felony charges are set aside, Johnson said.

Offenders with violent criminal backgrounds are not acceptable for drug court.

Johnson said he gets gratification from helping people kick drug habits.

“It’s the most rewarding thing I’ve done as a judge,” he said. “We’re solving problems. Sentencing people gets people out of the way for a while. We’re looking at making a person a whole person, not just an addict.”

Jefferson drug court facts

Jefferson County started a drug court in 1996.

  • Applicants: 5,514

  • Accepted participants: 4,161

  • Denied applicants: 1,353

  • Successful completion: 2,443

  • Failures: (sentenced to prison) 660

  • Active participants: 599

  • Drug court fees paid by defendants: $3,010,476

  • Community service by defendants: 220,000 hours

  • Savings from not sending inmates to prison: Over $36 million

    Source: Jefferson County
    Drug Court/Retired District Judge Pete Johnson

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