Carter County saying 'No' to drugs, 'Yes' to drug court
By Kathy Helms-Hughes


   It's no secret Carter County has a growing drug and alcohol problem. What to do about it is the question. The number of repeat offenders has shown that the current system is not working. But is the community ready to try something new?
   Those who work within the court system say it's time to make a difference, and they believe "drug court" could be the answer.
   Since 1989 when the first drug court began in Dade County, Fla., nearly 140,000 drug-dependent offenders have entered the program and more than 70 percent are either still enrolled or have graduated, according to "Looking at a Decade of Drug Courts," a report prepared by the Drug Court Clearinghouse and Technical Assistance Project.
   But becoming "clean and sober" is only the first step toward graduation from drug court. Participants must obtain a high school diploma or GED, maintain full-time employment, be current in all financial obligations -- including drug court fees and child support payments -- and sometimes even must have a community sponsor. Some programs require community service, while one requires prospective graduates to prepare a two-year "life plan" to assure the court the participant has developed the necessary "tools" to lead a drug-free and crime-free life, the report states.
   There are 750 drug courts in existence nationwide and 500 in the planning stage, including one in Carter County, according to Vanessa Scott, drug court coordinator. Washington and Unicoi counties opened drug courts Oct. 1, 2001.
   Members of the Carter County drug court team in addition to Scott include: General Sessions Court Judge John Walton, Assistant District Attorney Mark Hill, Circuit Court Clerk John Paul Mathes, Comprehensive Community Services Probation Officer Tammy Eggleston, Elizabethton Chief of Police Roger Deal, CCSD Alcohol & Drug Treatment Counselor Sue Ramsey, Carter County Sheriff's Department Investigator Johnny Blankenship, and East Tennessee Graduate Student Jennifer Commons.
   The group recently attended a drug court workshop in Albuquerque, N.M., where they were able to observe the court in action.
   "The judge is what pulls everything together," said Scott. "The judge is the 'hammer' of drug court, and then out from the judge you have the prosecutors, the defense, the chief of police, the clerk's office, all the different treatment components, the probation components. It's very intensive judicial supervision, which is completely unlike traditional probation."
   Participants see the drug court judge at least every two weeks, one-on-one. "It's not defense attorneys talking on their behalf. They actually come and talk directly to the judge [and] every aspect of their life is put under a magnifying glass," Scott said.
   Chief Deal said it was amazing how open participants were with the judge. "Actually, it's the first thing that I've ever seen that addresses the key cause of the problem and not just the crime. ... The participants were sanctioned when they did wrong and rewarded when they did good. It was a very positive thing to see through my eyes, as a police officer for the past 25 years."
   Once someone is referred to drug court, they undergo comprehensive treatment for alcohol and drug addiction, Scott said. "You just don't come into drug court to piddle around. You're truly in there because you have a problem with alcohol and drug use. And that's what we focus on."
   Most participants have been using drugs at least 15 years, and generally longer. At the time they enter the program, most are using multiple illegal drugs as well as alcohol, while some are also abusing prescription drugs. About a quarter of participants have participated unsuccessfully in one or more prior treatment programs.
   Before each drug court session, team members get together in a "staffing" meeting and talk about every case coming up for review "and we come to a unanimous consensus on what should happen," Scott said. "If someone is not doing what they're supposed to, the drug court determines sanctions," which could include jail time, enhanced treatment, community service -- "anything the team can come up with to be a negative imposition that helps the offender along. The whole object is to get them off of their drugs and back into society as a productive person."
   Persons who are repeatedly sanctioned, especially for the same offense, such as failing drug screens, are subject to being kicked out of the program and going to jail to serve out their original sentence.
   Participants are subject to frequent and random urinalysis. According to statistics from 14 drug courts in 10 states, the percentage of clean drug screens reported for participants in the program ranged from 84 percent to 98 percent. Of 49,969 urine samples performed at drug court in San Diego, Calif., 98 percent were clean.
   The Carter County team currently is working on eligibility criteria. At present, participants cannot have more than four DUIs. Fourth offense is considered a felony in Tennessee and drug court is a misdemeanor program. Participants also cannot have a felony crime of violence, according to Judge Walton.
   "To me as a judge, its offering alternatives and getting treatment as opposed to jail time. It's geared toward helping people get better, as opposed to being in a vicious cycle and them coming back."
   Scott said the success rate is in excess of 80 percent reduction in recidivism. "Statistically, it's the best program there ever has been for the court system."
   The Carter County team is looking at drug court programs across the nation and what is working for them as it determines eligibility criteria, "so that we can have a program that is just ours or more successful than the ones that are already successful," Scott said. The Department of Justice has determined 10 key components which each program must contain.
   Chief Deal said one thing in Albuquerque that struck him was the "Free Bicycle Program," geared to participants who must maintain full-time employment.
   "If you lost your car, here's you a free bicycle -- you've got a way to get to work. I think that's a great idea. We recover I don't know how many bicycles a year that are never claimed, that we would be glad to donate," Deal said.
   According to Scott, the public bus service in Albuquerque installed bike racks on the backs of their buses as a result of the drug courts. "They've really come on strong out there."
   The drug court team has a final training session in September, after which it will set a target date for implementation and possibly set up a separate steering committee made up of people in the community.
   Success of the program really depends on community involvement, Scott said. "If you really want your program to work, you need, for instance, someone who owns a restaurant on the steering committee. They may be able to offer your drug court clients jobs."
   Steering committee members also get a better understanding of what participants are going through and the time constraints they are under due to treatment, and may agree to work with them.
   Every day of their life, participants have activities they must perform during the 12 month period: seeing their probation officers, submitting to drug screens, undergoing counseling or attending AA meetings, to name a few.
   "It's very intense the whole time," Chief Deal said, "and if they go by what's handed down to them, they don't have time to get in trouble."
   Funding for drug court probably is the biggest barrier to overcome, according to Scott. "There is some federal funding that we certainly will submit a grant for."
   Team members spend their personal time to make drug court a reality, she said. "There's no funding whatsoever for the committee to get together and have meetings and plan. Everybody is doing it because they want an improvement."
   Circuit Court Clerk Mathes said he sees grandmothers and mothers every day, seeking help for family members. Once drug court is implemented, "we'll have it." And when participants go to pay on their fines and costs, he said, "They'll be getting more for their dollar.
   "There's a need out here for it. Carter County is screaming for help," he said.