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State positioned to lead country in drug courts

By Desiree Hunter
Associated Press Writer

MONTGOMERY — Drug addiction is hard to shake, but Alabama has been taking significant steps to help those struggling with dependence get the treatment they need instead of just locking them up, Chief Justice Sue Bell Cobb said Thursday.

With 25 more drug courts in line to join the 16 already operating, Alabama will be in a position to lead the country, Cobb told more than 100 judges, lawyers and community corrections officials who will be involved in the expanding program.

"I want us to be known for fixing people rather than filling prisons," she said.

Drug courts allow nonviolent drug offenders to go through a lengthy program that involves intense supervision and testing while they are rehabilitated. The charges are dropped if they stay drug free for a year.

Court in all counties

The goal is to have at least one exemplary court in all 67 counties by 2010, Cobb said after addressing the attendees at a three-day drug court training conference. Some at the meeting already have courts in their areas and others will be able to start them by Oct. 1.

The rest are shooting for Jan. 1, said Pete Johnson, a retired judge who started Jefferson County's court in 1996.

"We can literally become known as one of the first states to have a model drug court in every county," Cobb told the group.

Jefferson County statistics

As of February, the Jefferson County program had accepted 4,161 offenders, with 2,610 graduates and 431 who were still enrolled. A total of 701 failed the program and were sentenced to prison, but the recidivism rate for graduates was just nine percent. The defendants have paid more than $3.1 million in drug court fees and the program has saved more than $36 million in prison costs.

"Drug court is about changing people and helping people to change," Johnson said. "Every time we can take somebody who is addicted to drugs, it's reducing crime."

Prisons Commissioner Richard Allen said last week that about a third of the inmates in state facilities were charged with drug offenses, while 75 to 80 percent had drug problems that contributed to their crimes.

Last month there were 29,357 inmates packed into the state's aging prison system that was built to hold less than half that number.

Drug courts will help with overcrowding by keeping convicted offenders from entering the system.

Talladega County Circuit Judge Chad Woodruff said he was grateful for the conference, which erased "any question of the necessity or need" for drug courts.

"When you hear about an offender or drug addict the real easy answer is to lock them up and throw away the key," said Woodruff, who's hoping to have a court running by the end of the year. "But I've seen the cycle of addiction and we simply can't afford to outbuild the problem."

Cobb said $1.7 million will be distributed among the new drug courts for at least one staff member and organizations are securing grants and seeking local funding to supplement that money.

She also suggested they reach out to their local business communities since drug addiction eats away at their employable population.

Local drug courts

The city of Decatur has a municipal drug court. Lawrence County has a drug court. Neither Morgan nor Limestone counties have a drug court, but Morgan County is in the process of trying to establish one.

Copyright 2005 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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