Pubdate: Tue, 20 Jan 2004
Source: Americus Times-Recorder (GA)
Copyright: 2004 Americus Times-Recorder
Author: Genie Collins
Bookmark: (Drug Courts)


AMERICUS -- Drug offenders in Sumter County will have to answer to a new 
kind of court soon.

Drug courts focus on treatment and education rather than prison time, 
Superior Court Judge John Harper told the Sumter County Commission at the 
Jan. 13 committee meeting. However, some offenders who commit crimes would 
need to be in jail.

The courts are one of Harper's "campaign promises" from his election.

There is currently a drug court in Sumter County, but it focuses more on 
first-time offenders who have no prior criminal records. The goal has been 
to expand the court so that it helps the addicts and those with a mental 
illness in addition to a drug addiction.

Chief Superior Court Judge R. Rucker Smith said drug courts did not exist 
until recently.

"The courts are developing because of a need for them," Smith said. "It's a 
good use of resources."

"Instead of incarcerating, we're educating," Smith said.

Superior Court Judge George Peagler said the court is "much needed" in 
Sumter County. "Drug courts have been very successful in Glynn and Bibb 
counties and around the Gainesville area."

In fact, drug courts in Georgia have received "national recognition" in 
Washington, D.C., Peagler said.

Peagler explained it costs $35 a day to house a prisoner at the Sumter 
County Jail. Drug courts would take away the cost of jail time.

He said many drug problems belong to people with mental illnesses who don't 
know how to get help and "self-medicate." In fact, substance abuse "goes 
hand-in-hand with mental health."

Peagler said the drug court will make use of its existing resources, so 
there will not be an added cost to taxpayers. The court will focus on 
"non-violent offenders," those who have not committed violent crimes, such 
as armed robbery, in an attempt to get money to buy more drugs.

Drug courts will "keep people employed and keep families together."

"If they (the drug offenders) follow restrictions, they will not go to 
jail," Peagler said. "If they mess up, they will be incarcerated."

Peagler said "repeat offenders" drop significantly when drug courts are in 
place. He said federal grants will be examined for use in the drug courts.

Tim Lawhorn of Supervised Probation said the court will not only be a 
"wonderful asset" to Sumter County, but it will also be good for the 
Southwestern Judicial Circuit, which is comprised of Lee, Stewart, Sumter, 
Schley, Webster and Macon counties.

"Drug courts are a good way for addicts who want to come clean to come 
clean," Lawhorn said.

He said the ones that want to come clean will "stay away from users. The 
addicts will become their own support group."

Lawhorn said if it had not been for the existing drug court, one user may 
have been charged with a felony, ruining his record.

"Some slippage is expected," Lawhorn said.

He said, "We have to have a little fun in our educational programs, in 
order to get them to let their guard down."

At the meeting, Harper asked the Commission to commit half of the money 
designated to Sumter County for drug abuse education programs. Known as 
Drug Abuse Treatment Education (DATE), the money comes to Sumter County as 
mandated by state law, Harper said. Currently, the money is being used to 
fund the Drug Abuse Resistance Education (D.A.R.E.) program. On Tuesday, 
the Board of Commissioners approved Harpers' request.

During his presentation to the Board, Harper gave the scenario of two 
people, one who smokes crack once, regrets it, but does not become addicted 
and the user who becomes addicted immediately. He said both subjects used 
"poor judgment."

Harper said 80 percent of the crimes in Sumter County are "drug related."

"People with an addiction to substances have a neurochemical process in the 
brain," Harper said.

Sometimes, an abuser has another mental illness and Harper called this 
"dual diagnosis."

"If you're sending them home, you're not helping them, and if you send them 
to rehabilitation, they just go back and get addicted," Harper said. 
"People continue to abuse."

"We are not trading in prison completely," Harper said. He explained that 
some people commit crimes and they need to go to prison. However, he did 
point out that imprisonment is expensive.

"We need to take these people out of the drug culture and get them on the 
right track," Harper said.

Another dilemma that costs so much when it comes to drug addiction and the 
courts is "crack babies." When women between the ages of 20 and 35 who are 
addicted to crack have babies, the newborns are immediately addicted to the 
drug. The costs associated with their care and rehabilitation is also high.

Harper said there are approximately 10 drug courts up and running in the 
state and the court in Bibb County was second in the state.

Like all new and different ideas, the drug court met with "great 
opposition" when Harper first proposed it, he said.

"Drug courts work," Harper said. "They save money and they help people. 
They restore people to productive citizens."

As for costs to start and run the court, Harper said it varies from county 
to county, because "what works in Bibb County may not work in Sumter 
County. It will save money in the long run."

He reassured the Commission that they would have to commit no dollar 
amount, but a percentage of the current DATE money.

While Harper does support the D.A.R.E. program for fifth-graders in Sumter 
County, he said, "Drug abuse education is something we need on a broad 
spectrum but those in the drug culture need it worse."

Harper explained that some addicts who come before the court would have to 
pay for treatment and rehabilitation, but some would be eligible for 
Medicaid. He said some users may be able to skip court completely.

People who enter the court may be given a Substance Abuse Screening Index 
(SASI), to see if they actually do have a drug problem, or if they have a 
mental illness.

Harper said to get state money for the court, there would have to be a 
court in a county.

"The problem we're having is getting it off the ground," Harper said.

"I've been working on this for three years and we're helping those who need 
it the least," Harper said of the current drug court in Sumter County.

Harper said he would learn from other judges in other drug courts.

Commissioner Terrance Bryant asked Harper if he had a proposed "ball park 
figure" on what it would take to get the court started. Harper said again, 
"All I'll ever ask for is one-half of the DATE money ... It's the right 
thing to do and it will not cost any money." He pointed out that the county 
already had the money.

Harper said he was not sure how the sheriff would take the news, because 
money would be taken away from the D.A.R.E. program.

County Financial Director Ann Barefoot said the beginning amount for the 
D.A.R.E program in 2003 was $28,000, and at the end of the year, the 
balance was $10,000 and $700 went to advertising. Each month, the D.A.R.E. 
program spent approximately $1,200 per month.

In conclusion, Bryant commended Harper for his efforts "in trying to 
eradicate the drug problem." Also, Harper said that as the court progresses 
fines would increase, because getting addicts off drugs would make them 
working, productive citizens and they would be able to pay their court fines.

"We can make a change in this community in five years," Harper said. "Drug 
users will become productive citizens ... and taxpayers."
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