Pubdate: Sun, 15 Nov 2009
Source: Athens Banner-Herald (GA)
Copyright: 2009 Athens Newspapers Inc
Author: Joe Johnson, Staff Writer


Alvin "Rick" Thomas taps a floorboard with a hammer, and on his hands
and knees, puts his cheek to the ground to make sure it's flush. The
29-year-old Athens man last week was working as hard to renovate a
Westside apartment as he was to stay clean, sober and out of jail.

One day at a time, he's using the skills he learned at the Athens Day
Reporting Center, a state Department of Corrections program for
nonviolent convicts who violate probation because they're addicts or
have terrible coping skills.

"Somewhere in there, I came to the realization that if I focused the
same energy that I used to steal and buy drugs on trying to do the
right thing, maybe there is hope and I'm not a lost cause," Thomas

The Day Reporting Center on Old Epps Bridge Road opened in January
2008, replacing a diversion center that began basically as a
restitution collection center where probationers paid fines and child
support, then evolved to include substance abuse counseling and
employment assistance.

At the old center, probationers had to report back each night and were
supervised until they left the next day to go to work or look for a
job. That required 24-hour staffing that cost taxpayers $52 a day for
each probationer, said Tripp Powers, the Athens DRC

That contrasts to $17 a day for the Day Reporting Center - or $56 for
the Clarke County Jail and $52 for a state prison, Powers said.

More importantly, he said, studies show that only 7 percent of the
people who complete DRC programs offend again, compared to a 26
percent recidivism rate for diversion centers.

"This is an intensive program that takes six months to get to the end,
and some folks take 12 months to get there," Powers said. "It's
basically a last-resort alternative, and those who don't successfully
complete the program will end up in confinement somewhere."

All three Clarke County Superior Court judges like the Day Reporting
Center model.

"Judges are constantly looking for alternatives to incarceration for
nonviolent offenders, especially with the overcrowding we are
experiencing at the Clarke County Jail," said Lawton Stephens, chief
judge of the Western Judicial Circuit that includes Clarke and Oconee

"I am impressed with the DRC and have sent quite a few people there as
a condition of probation," Stephens said. "It truly holds people
accountable for being on time to classes held at the DRC, mandatory
drug and alcohol screening, employment assistance - all aimed at
keeping that individual from re-offending and, thus, reducing

The Athens DRC works together with the Western Judicial Circuit's
so-called treatment and accountability courts for people who likely
wouldn't have offended if it wasn't for drug and alcohol abuse or
mental illness.

The DRC doesn't just provide job counseling - like the diversion
center did. It requires probationers to have steady employment for at
least 90 days before they can graduate. The program also has staff for
counseling and education, and to frequently test probationers for
drugs and alcohol.

"It's a one-stop shop so they can become law-abiding, taxpaying
citizens," Powers said.

Changing patterns

Thomas grew up in Athens public housing, and began drinking and
smoking pot when he was 14.

"I just wanted to fit in," he said.

But he tried cocaine and his downward slide picked up speed - he
started to hang out with a rougher crowd, dropped out of school and
was disowned by his family. He lived with other addicts or on the
street, even sleeping in people's cars and on their porches without
them knowing.

To support a $200-a-day addiction, he'd prowl the streets for cars to
break into. He even took orders from dealers, stealing the merchandise
they wanted in exchange for crack.

"I'd take the shopping list from my suppliers and go shoplifting to
fill their orders," he said.

It got so bad he would even steal from stores at 3 a.m., when he was
the only customer and knew the clerk was watching his every move.

Thomas became a frequent flier at the Clarke County Jail and served
five prison stints.

"Judge (David) Sweat said to me, 'Son, you're going to do a life
sentence on the installment plan,' " he said.

He finished his last prison term in February 2008, but later that
month he was convicted again on a pending 2007 theft case.

This time a judge ordered him into the newly opened Athens Day
Reporting Center, where probationers are challenged to cope and
required to attend mandatory classes with homework, tests and

It's all about changing the way even a longtime criminal thinks, said
Beverly Grant, a counselor at the DRC.

"All of our programs are based on a cognitive behavioral theory that
is proven to work with this type of population," Grant said. "It
addresses changing their thinking patterns and beliefs, so their
behavior changes."

Representatives of the state Department of Labor, Athens Bar
Association and the Athens Justice Project speak at job-skills
classes; UGA students tutor probationers as they work toward their
GEDs; and workers from the Clarke County Health Department teach about
sexually transmitted diseases.

Pride, not problems

Thomas last smoked crack Dec. 19 - the longest he's gone without - and
he sees his upcoming sobriety anniversary as proof that he's changed.

"The people at the DRC offered every tool I need, and now is the time
to put them to work," he said.

Thomas picked up one of those tools from the DRC's "Primed for Life"
class, which emphasizes the importance of avoiding places and things
that could lead to relapse and jail.

"I might be at the BP paying for gas and see an old dealer of mine,
and I'll still speak to them to say, 'Hey, how are you doing' or
whatever, but at the same time I'm walking away from them," Thomas

"If you run across someone who is a trigger to you, you can speak to
them but keep on walking," he said. "Don't give them the time to have
a conversation, because if you do, it opens the door for one of those
moments where before you know it, you're asking yourself, 'How did I
get into this predicament?' "

Now an employee of Fred's Historic Properties, Thomas takes pride in
the neat, two-floor apartment he rents off Sunset Drive.

"I bought all this furniture," he said. "I have my own TV and I watch
movies that I rented and didn't steal." 
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MAP posted-by: Richard R Smith Jr