• 73°

County explores possible Drug Court

Should a man who steals a candy bar just once and a man who steals a car many times suffer the same punishment? In some third-world countries, both would lose a hand.

The same question has been applied in recent years to the drug offenders in the nation. Should all classes of drug offenders be given the same punishment?

Many courts think there are alternatives, and Covington County is one of those.

"Everyone knows that our primary crime problem in Covington County is the result of drug abuse," said Greg Gambril, chief assistant district attorney of the 22nd Judicial Court. "Drugs are the root of all the evil we see in our community today."

Gambril and nine others recently completed training that brings the county one step closer to a fully functioning Drug Court, which would monitor and assist a certain class of drug offenders.

"Drug Court will do what our current judicial system is unable to do - monitor offenders on a daily basis after they plead guilty. Only a certain type of drug offender will qualify for the program. Once they're in, they're required to go through rehabilitation, stay clean, and meet with a probation officer, court referral officer or counselor on a weekly basis," he said.

According to Gambril, the offender will also have to submit to random drug tests, and in-home visits that could come as often as every other day, perform community services, attend Narcotics Anonymous meetings, obtain vocational training, and, where necessary, a GED; obtain employment, and pay off all of their court costs, fines and restitution.

"If they take a step in the wrong direction, they go to jail," said Gambril.

Just because the program is designed to rehabilitate offenders where it can, doesn't mean it is soft on crime.

"The serious drug offenders will not qualify for this program and will continue to see the harsh sentences imposed on them that they've come to expect here in Covington County," said Gambril. "As far as those who go through the program, they will have the incentive, upon completion, of either having their charges dismissed or receiving probation; but they will have to earn it by completing a very demanding program."

Reducing recidivism is a key focus in the program.

"Nationwide, this program has turned out graduates who have never re-offended," said Gambril. "repeat offenders are one of the worse problems that we face. If we can prevent people from acts of recidivism, we will go a long way towards putting a substantial dent in our crime problem."

Gambril and the nine others who comprise the 22nd Judicial Drug Court Planning

Team, completed the Drug Court Planning Initiative Training, an intensive program developed by the US Department of Justice and the National Drug Court Institute.

"The training program is a federally funded three-step process that ultimately leads to the formation, implementation and funding of a drug court," said Gambril. "Circuit Judge Lex Short, who is the acting Drug Court Judge, and I attended the first part of the training in California back in January, which was a three-day introductory session, The entire team later attended additional training sessions in Charleston, S.C. and Olympia, Wash. Our team has now amassed more then 500 collective hours of training."

"One of the reasons that the present punishment system doesn't, at times, properly rehabilitated certain drug offenders is because of prison overcrowding," said Short. "A drug offender is sentenced to a certain term of years, but within a few months, he is released on parole and has no alternative but to return to the same environment that introduced him to drugs in the first place. We've tried to rectify this situation through the use of split sentences combined with patient rehabilitation, but even then, there are so many who fall through the cracks because we don't have the means necessary to constantly monitor these offenders."

Short sees everyone benefiting from the drug court program.

"With the creation of a drug court here in Covington County, those same individuals will not only be punished for their crime, but they will also be given the opportunity to rehabilitate themselves and gain the necessary tools and coping skills to stay drug free, In turn, the community will be protected in that these people won't be re-offending."

Other members of the team are one member of the 22nd Judicial Court's Drug Task Force, Public Defenders Manish Patel, Chris Sledge, and Meredith Peters; Andalusia Municipal Judge and Juvenile Court Prosecutor Patrick McCalman, Covington County Sheriff's Department Captain Rob Arnett, Juvenile Probation officer David Pearce, Court Referral Officer Angie Curry, and Probation Officer William Law.

"The competition to obtain one of these training packages is tremendous," said Gambril. "The fact that we received this training grant is not only a testament to the drug problem that we face here, but also to the strength and education of our team in combating this problem. This training and, ultimately, this court, will help us swing the pendulum back in our favor in fighting this plague."

Gambril said that though the funding grant application process does not begin until October, with the funding not being awarded until July 2004, the team has set up a tentative start-up date of Jan.1, 2004.

"At that time, the court will only be open to a few applicants based on whatever local funding and volunteer help we are able to obtain by then," Gambril said.