Pubdate: Thu, 30 Aug 2007
Source: Montgomery Advertiser (AL)
Copyright: 2007 The Advertiser Co.
Author: Deisree Hunter
Bookmark: (Drug Courts)
Note: Letters from the newspaper's circulation area receive publishing priority


MONTGOMERY, Ala. - 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

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.

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

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 conferencewhich 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.

"The business community should be very supportive because this is
going to help people stay at work and not miss work," she said.
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