County gets drug grant

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, July 24, 2002

Covington County has been given a new tool in its fight against drugs.

The county has been approved for a grant that will train several local court personnel

on how to establish and run drug court.

According to Chief Assistant District Attorney Greg Gambril, the U.S. Department of Justice's Drug Court Planning Initiative recently notified him that a grant applied for on behalf of the 22nd Judicial had been approved.

"The money from this grant will pay to send our Drug Court Planning Committee to three separate workshops across the country where we will learn how to establish and operate a drug court," said Gambril. "From there, we will proceed to the next step of applying for the grant to establish the actual drug court."

Gambril, who is heading the effort to establish a drug court in Covington County, explained that a drug court is a form of alternative punishment for drug crime offenders who fit certain criteria established by the District Attorney.

"Though the final criteria have not yet been sent, we will most likely open the court to defendants who have no felony convictions, who commit a minor drug crime, such as simple possession of a small amount of a certain drug, a minor property crime that is motivated by drug addiction, or a minor crime perpetrated while under the influence of drugs, and who are willing to submit to the strict mandates of the drug court," said Gambril. "They will be required to plead guilty to their offense and receive a sentence at the inception of their prosecution, but that sentence will be suspended while they go through the drug court program."

"If they successfully graduate from the program, which will require frequent meetings with the drug court judge, regular and random drug testing, maintaining employment, acquiring a GED, counseling and rehabilitation, then their conviction will be vacated," added Gambril. "If they fail to comply with the program, the will go to jail."

Gambril said the program has been very successful in the state as well as the rest of the country.

"At last count, only seven other jurisdictions in Alabama have drug courts," said Gambril. "Birmingham is probably the flagship program in our state. According to a recent article in Readers Digest, they've seen their city's jail population fall from 1,300 in 1997 when their court began to 950 in 2001."

Gambril reported that, in his capacity as Chief Assistant District Attorney, he has observed that an overwhelming majority of the crimes committed in Covington County are drug-related in that they are drug crimes themselves or are committed by persons who are under the influence of drugs or are trying to obtain something of value with which they can pawn or trade for drugs.

"A reduction in (the county's) drug problem would have a substantial impact on our overall crime rate," said Gambril. "Since Birmingham's drug court has been in effect, they have seen their serious crime (such as murder, robbery and rape) decrease by 33 percent."

He said the program is successful due to four factors, including the fact that it is "hands-on" in that the court system stays closely involved with these defendants over the several months that the program runs, it targets people who are not too late to reach with this type of rehabilitation, it helps defendants obtain the means to stay off drugs and it gives drug users an "incredible incentive to quit using drugs."

"Stay clean or you are guaranteed to go to jail," said Gambril.

Gambril said it will take some time before the drug court is established.

"To qualify for the grant, our team has to receive the training and begin to develop a plan for our court," said Gambril. "Our last training conference is scheduled for August 2003. Then we have to be approved for the grant, which we are extremely optimistic about. Finally, we have to receive the funds, hire personnel and implement the program. We are shooting for sometime in 2004 if everything goes according to schedule."

Gambril said the program will prove worth the wait, however.

"Not only will (the program) help people who have lost control of their lives, but it will also have a trickle-down effect on others as well," said Gambril. "It should save our court system a great deal of money in that a good percentage of our criminal defendants will be going through the drug court as opposed to engaging in the extended legal entanglements that make a case drag on for so long. With those cases in the drug court, we will be able to get to our most serious cases to trial faster. With shorter waits for trials and a reduced crime rate, it should also help empty out our county jail somewhat."

The current members of the Drug Court Planning Committee

are Gambril, who is the Drug Court Coordinator, Circuit Court Judge Charles "Lex" Short, District and Juvenile Court Judge Frank "Trippy" McGuire, Drug Task Force Prosecutor Ben Bowden, criminal defense attorneys Walt Merrell and Manish Patel, Covington County Sheriff's Deputy Rob Arnett, Probation Officer Bill Law, Court Referral Officer Angie Curry and Juvenile Probation Officer David Pearce.