St. Clair County was honored last week for having the “Top Drug Court Program” in Alabama. The state’s Administrative Office of the Courts honor was presented by Alabama Criminal Court of Appeals Judge Michael Joiner during a Drug Court conference. The recognition came as a pleasant surprise to the county’s drug court team and to Circuit Court Judge Phil Seay, who heads up the program for the county.
The nation’s first drug court was established in Miami-Dade County, Fla., in 1989. Frustration over repeat drug offenders brought about new ideas and new procedures for dealing with people arrested for non-violent drug offenses. They decided to combine drug treatment with the structure and authority of the judge, and working as a team, they were able to bring about lasting changes in the lifestyle and behavior of the participants.
Within 10 years of the establishment of that first program, 492 programs had been established across the country. Today more than 2,700 drug courts are in place, using a kind of “tough love” approach to give people a chance to rethink their choices in life.
It doesn’t work for everyone, but the odds are good. The National Association for Drug Court Professionals claims a success rate around 85 percent nationally.
Drug courts are also touted as a cost-saving measure. Participants pay their own way in the program. Instead of being locked up and burdening society with the cost of their incarceration, they are required to maintain employment, pay to participate in the program and pay all fines, restitutions and other costs.
It’s a voluntary, 12-month program. St. Clair County’s program is designed for first-time offenders in which the crimes are directly related to drug addiction. Offenders with minor criminal histories and a current possession charge may petition the District Attorney’s office to enter the program. The objective is to have the case dismissed upon successful completion of the program, but not all offenders are approved for dismissal of their case.
It’s a stark choice — abide by the program or go to prison.
Drug courts aren’t without their critics, and they do add to the workload of those in the justice system. The courts aren’t available in every jurisdiction, and simply having a drug court in place doesn’t guarantee its success. It takes good organization, commitment, and an appropriate level of staffing to make it work well.
St. Clair County established its program in 2007 as an option for qualifying juveniles and adults get the opportunity to change the course of their lives. Of the 95 graduates since 2008, the year the first group graduated, the county has had no repeat offenders. Another 45 people are in the class now.
The state recognition is worthy confirmation of a program that’s getting the job done.