Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Congratulations Drug Court

By: Brian D. Anderson Sr.
President & CEO
Dalton-Whitfield Chamber of Commerce

Have you ever heard of a drug court? Did you know we have one? Thanks to Judge Jack Partain, Coordinator George Shirilla, Sheriff Scott Chitwood, the Whitfield County Board of Commissioners, the District Attorney’s Office, the Public Defender’s Office, and many others, we have the Conasauga Drug Court right here in our community. It was created in 2002 and due to its success, many other drug courts have been created in Georgia, and throughout the nation.

What is a drug court? In layman’s terms, it is simply a judicial program that attempts to save lives through dealing with drug addiction and giving drug offenders a pathway back to productive citizenship. Those accepted into the program agree to a long (minimum two years) and very structured program that deals with their addiction within the judicial process. Participants that have been arrested have the option of applying for participation in the program versus the typical judicial process.

Participants who are accepted into the program must plead guilty to the offenses they are charged with. They are sentenced to probation. Part of their probation is served through participation in the drug court program. Those that are eligible for first offender status and who complete the program, will not have a felony conviction on their record. The Drug Court program is a unique opportunity and privilege in the judicial process.

Last week, I attended the 40th graduation ceremony of the Conasauga Drug Court. Congratulations to John, Stephanie, Andrew, and Blake. These four graduates have successfully completed the rigorous program. These individuals are to be commended for their diligence and commitment to fighting their addiction and overcoming the damage that drug addiction can render on them, their families, and our community.

For those who have never attended a session in which Judge Partain reviews the status of the participants, rewards or sanctions participants, or awards diplomas for graduating; you have missed a real eye-opening (and in most cases tear-inducing) experience. The review sessions where rewards or sanctions are issued based on the participants progress, are not for the faint of heart. Imagine being in the program and failing a drug test or missing an appointment with the treatment team, and then having to face the Judge, who then sanctions you to a day or two in jail. I have witnessed these sessions. No matter how hard core one may be about drug use, watching someone be sent to jail is tough.

Speaking of Judge Jack Partain, let me just say that we are blessed to have him in our community. His work as a Superior Court Judge is remarkable enough. But he volunteers to oversee the Consauga Drug Court in addition to his regular Superior Court case load. The best way to for me to describe Judge Partain is to say he is tough but fair. He really cares about those accepted into the program and is committed to helping them succeed. The other team members share that commitment and compassion.

Some of you may be saying to yourself, who cares? These people broke the law and got caught. Why should we spend the extra resources to help criminals who knew better? I know someone reading this is saying something to that effect. I know this because I have had at some point or other felt this way. I have never taken illegal drugs nor do I plan to. But I do have addictions. I have struggled for years with biting my fingernails. I also eat sweets to my detriment. Mentioning these two insignificant addictions compared with drug addiction is not to belittle the struggles of those addicted to drugs. It is mentioned to make the point that addiction is addiction. It is extremely difficult to overcome the psychological and the physiological attachment to anything we become addicted to.

Drug court provides an environment that enables the participants to deal with the addiction while also working through the other necessary steps to becoming self-sufficient and productive. These participants need a supportive and stable platform to grow from. They need compassion, caring, and expertise of a variety of team members with specific skill sets. The Conasauga Drug Court Team provides this enabling platform for these individuals.

The other side of the question “who cares?” is this; this program is cost effective versus incarceration. Or put another way, drug court offers a return on investment for all stakeholders. This return comes in a variety of ways. The most important is that outside of times of sanctions, participants are not incarcerated at a cost of $40-$55 per day. They can (and usually do) work providing for themselves and their families. The support team works in the drug court program in addition to their normal duties. Judge Partain, the assigned Asst. District Attorney, the Public Defender, and all other specialists volunteer to work on the team. They are paid for and do their regular full-time job while also working voluntarily on the drug court team. The incremental cost to the community is for the program coordinator and a few administrative costs.

In order to fully put into perspective what a program like this means to a community, let me highlight a few of the statistics pertinent to the program’s success:
• There are 46 current participants (a savings of $1840 per day that they are not incarcerated).
• Treatment attendance, Drug Test results, Drug Court appearance, and attendance in the 12-Step program all are at the 99% success rate.
• 94% of participants are employed.
• 77% of participants are retained and the program has a low 14% attrition rate, and an equally low recidivism rate of 9%.
• Participants have given 19,557 community service hours.
• 66 participants have received their GED with 7 more in progress.
• Participants have paid over $256,000 in fees.
• Costs savings from not incarcerating the participants is over $759,000.
These statistics paint a very compelling story of the success our community has enjoyed in dealing with a devastating society issue. I am thankful our community has the Conasauga Drug Court. The entire team and those in the program are to be encouraged and commended.

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