‘Drug court’ starts July 15

Published 12:18 am Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Beginning July 15, there will be an alternative to prison time for first time drug offenders – drug court.

The program will begin with 20 “slots,” and those who are arrested on certain drug charges from July 15 forward will be eligible to apply for acceptance into the program, District Attorney Greg Gambril said.

Drug courts allow charges to be set-aside for defendants who agree to undergo an intense therapy and drug-monitoring program, according to the Alabama Sentencing Commission’s Web site. Gambril described the program as an alternative mode of punishment and sentencing for only a certain class of drug offenders.

“I’d have to say 70 to 80 percent of our current docket of felonies committed are drug-related,” Gambril said. “We needed a way to stop that cycle. It’s been recognized that drug court can do that. It can get people clean, which stops them from committing other crimes.”

Gambril said the program will be available to those who are “charged with a particular drug offense” such as possession of a controlled substance or a combination of crimes in which drug use was a “significant factor.” They will also be required to pay a “drug court fee” to participate in the program. Eventually, he hopes those funds, along with grant monies, will allow the program to be self-sustaining.

“If that person meets the criteria, they will plead guilty to offense; receive jail sentences and the judge will continue their judgment hearing until a later date for them to go through drug court,” he said. “People who are charged with manufacturing, distribution or trafficking and violent crimes are not eligible. So say if someone commits a theft while under the influence of drugs, they technically would be eligible.”

The program involves “some very rigorous requirements on participants,” he said. First, a person must first be evaluated by a court referral officer who will advise the drug court team if the applicant is eligible for the program. The team, which is comprised of Judge Charles A. “Lex” Short; program coordinator Stacey Brooks; a DA’s office prosecutor; three defense attorneys, Meredith Peters, Manish Patel and Chris Sledge; two drug court monitors, Elizabeth Carter and a to-be-hired employee; a probation officer, a drug task force agent, a juvenile court representative and juvenile probation officer.

Angie Curry will serve as the court referral officer.

Secondly, participants are required to enter a rehabilitation program. Most participants will utilize faith-based rehabilitations programs, like Opp’s Crossover Ministries, Gambril said.

Participants will be monitored throughout their rehabilitation phase, the length of which will be set by the judge.

“There will also be certain goals the person must accomplish to define their progress, in addition to rehab,” Gambril said. “One of those is that they will have to get a job. They’ll have to undergo random urinalysis tests, home visits, etc. There will be a super-intensive probation period. They’ll also have to pay off their court costs, their fines and restitution.”

The program will take approximately one year to complete and participants will appear before the judge “once or twice a month,” he said.

“So, if you look at it, once the person has completed the program, it’s a win-win for them,” he said. “The charges are dismissed and they come out that day free – free of debt because we’ve made them pay their fines. They’re not on probation. They’re employed and they have no felonies on their record.”

And while 20 slots may seem like a small number, Gambril said those spaces will not be filled overnight.

The county applied for and was awarded a training grant in 2002, which allowed for members of the local judicial system and the district attorney’s office, including Gambril, to attend a year-long training session to “develop a program that would work in Covington County.”

Since then, it has taken nearly eight years to make the program a reality, mainly because the program “was put on the back burner” when he became district attorney in 2005, Gambril said.

“When I came into office, my goal was to acquire the money to hire a part-time assistant to do drug court,” he said. “But that didn’t happen.”

Gambril said planning for the program began in September 2003 and was completed in January 2004. Additionally, the grant criteria changed in 2004 to require a 25 percent funding match, but it was money the DA’s office didn’t have, he said.

It was also the year DA Eugenia Loggins retired as DA and Gambril sought election. After that, the stumbling blocks kept piling up, he said.

“When I got bogged down in trying all of the capital cases and adjusting to being the new DA, drug court planning came to a halt,” he said, citing the Kevin Henderson case in spring 2006, Oscar Roy Doster in late summer-early fall 2006, and Bobby O’Lee Phillips in late winter-early spring 2007.

“But now, the groundwork is laid, and we’re ready to begin,” he said.