‘Drug Court’ numbers soaring

Sarah Wibell News

The Morgan County Citizen presents a four-part series on drug courts. These specific accountability treatment courts offer alternative means of addressing addiction and mental illness instead of sentencing offenders to prison. This is the second installment of that series.

The drug court that has operated in Morgan County for nearly three years is a part of the Ocmulgee Circuit Adult Treatment Court Collaborative (ATCC), which also serves Greene, Jasper, Baldwin, Hancock, Jones, Putnam, and Wilkinson counties. Through the collaboration of a multidisciplinary team of judges, treatment providers, case managers, program coordinators, attorneys, public defenders, sheriffs’ offices, community supervision officers, surveillance officers, and lab technicians, certain addicts who are non-violent offenders and face at least two remaining years of jail time may plead into this program and receive treatment in their own communities.

“We want everyone to understand, and we want the participants to remember, what they have to do in this program to succeed,” ATCC Superior Court Judge Alison Burleson stated at an ATCC commencement in Madison in July. “It really, I think, makes it more special when you hear what the participants have to go through and what our graduates had to do to get where they are sitting today. The participants who are in this program are people who have substance abuse issues or co-occurring mental health problems and substance abuse problems that have gotten them in trouble with the criminal justice system. Most of our participants are facing substantial prison time if they don’t complete this program.

“I’m here to tell you, drug court is not just here for people who need it, it’s for people who want it. In fact, (ATCC Superior Court) Judge (Amanda) Petty is fond of telling people when they plead in before her, ‘This program is hard. You have to want to do it, and I promise you at some point during your journey in this program, you’re going to wish I’d given you the prison sentence because it would probably be easier than what we ask of our participants.’”

The ATCC is an 18-24-month voluntary program with four phases, each with specific requirements, that participants must successfully complete. This includes random drug screening, complying with treatment recommendations and probation requirements, weekly meetings with case managers, attending two or more court sessions a month, adhering to a curfew, having a sponsor, and going to community support meetings like Alcoholics Anonymous. In addition, participants must gain sustainable employment – i.e. work that takes out taxes. If they do not have either a GED (General Educational Development) or a high school diploma, they are required to earn at least a GED diploma. Finally, there is also a $1K fee that has to be paid before graduating from the ATCC.

The Ocmulgee Circuit ATCC has operated since August 2003. However, prior to September 2015, all of the programing, treatment, and drug testing was provided in Milledgeville. This resulted in logistical concerns for participants from Morgan, Greene, and Jasper counties.

ATTC Coordinator April Robinson, who has worked with this program for seven years, recalled, “We ended up dividing the circuit about three years ago. Initially, when we started entering participants from the north (Morgan, Greene, and Jasper counties), we were transporting them daily for services in Baldwin County, which included treatment at River Edge Behavioral Health Center and drug screenings, and then transported them back home. The logistics of it became overwhelming as we began to enter more people from the north. We knew it was time for us to go ahead and set up shop there in the north.”

“Through the insight, leadership, and belief of some of our community leaders … (such as) Sheriff Robert Markley, Police Chief Bill Ashburn, Commissioner Donald Harris, and Commissioner Ron Milton, … (we received) a little bit of seed money and encouragement to get a program started here in the north,” Judge Burleson recollected. “It gives me goosebumps to stand here and tell you that this program that only had seven participants between the two counties when we started out, now has about 50 just in the north. That’s a real testament to those who have graduated.”

The Ocmulgee Circuit ATCC now has four divisions comprised of substance abuse and co-occurring mental health and addiction in both the north and the south. Approximately 130 participants are currently in the program.

Robinson estimates the ATCC takes in five to fifteen new people a month, stating, “We have many people who choose this program when they’re faced with significant prison, jail, or detention center time. A lot of individuals realize that they’re not going to get the treatment they need in those places. But they do know when they enter our program that we have the ability to sanction them to a residential treatment facility if they’re not able to maintain their sobriety in the community.”

The northern divisions now have a parallel treatment and screening system to the southern divisions. Counselors meet daily with participants in space provided by the Morgan County Sheriff’s Office.

Sheriff Markley stated, “It’s a big commitment in terms of space, but the Sheriff’s Office is committed to the program.”

In addition, drug testing is also conducted at their facility. All participants are required to call the Sheriff’s Office at 7:00 a.m. every morning, at which time they will be notified if they need to come in and provide a urine sample for screening.

Markley elucidated, “If participants’ names are drawn (using computerized randomization), they have to come in between 8:30 a.m. and 10:00 a.m. to give their sample. If they show up at 10:01 a.m., it’s too late, and they get whatever sanction the judge deems fit.”

Sheron Vance, a longtime investigator at the Morgan County Sheriff’s Office who oversees the ATCC drug screening, noted, “You get kind of close to these people and want them to do well. A lot of them work all night and then come in here. I have a guy now who has worked all night, came in this morning, goes to school all day, and has to go back to work tonight. Plus, if you don’t do your homework, you get sanctioned.

“Once, a guy came in from Monticello and was almost late for drug testing because he’d left his notebook at home and had to turn around and get it. The program tries to instill responsibility.”

The V-Twin System can run 80 drug tests at a time with each cycle lasting four hours. Vance, who attended a three-day training course in Delaware to use the V-Twin System, labels the samples with bar codes, maintains the reagents, and checks the calibrations. Each test is done through a small amount of urine that is pipetted into a vial that fits into the machine.

“If the samples are clean, all of the drugs screened for will be green on the computer (display), but if it’s not, then it shows in red,” Vance stated as she motioned toward the computer monitor. “An additional bar code is printed out for those that are red. Next, I have to throw the first vial away, go back to get more urine from the sample jar, and retest it. I’ve never had it not come back red a second time. … I have to keep the positive sample jars for six months. If participants contest (the results), we send that sample off to a really big lab.

“Participants can also be sanctioned for trying to dilute their sample, which means they try to drink a lot (of water) to flush out their system (causing their urine to become very clear and colorless).”

All results of the drug screenings are shared with Robinson and the judges. Of course, the individuals receive their own reports.

Robinson noted that participants often support each other in the program. Since they are with each other frequently at meetings, screenings, and court dates, participants hold one another accountable when there is a positive drug test or if another rule is not followed.

Another program requirement is adherence to a curfew. Individual curfews are dependent upon which of the four program phases that person is in: 7:00 p.m. for Phase I, 8:00 p.m. for Phase II, 9:00 p.m. for phase III, and 11:00 p.m. for Phase IV. Certain allowances are made if participants have sustainable employment requiring work past the assigned curfew. Additionally, they are able to attend support meetings such as Alcoholics Anonymous that might occur at night.

“We do allow them to go to those meetings even after curfew because we do want participants to continue their community support and go to their meetings and therapy,” Robinson asserted.

“You don’t recognize all of the working parts and what has to be dealt with until you get involved,” Trammell admitted. “The amount of things that the coordinator has to deal and be familiar with was a big surprise for me in the beginning. For instance, trying to find somewhere for someone to live if they had no place to live, facilitating transportation for people, a whole number of things.

“We’ve tried to think outside of the box. For instance, one of the things we’ve begun is a training process for persons in our program to become peer specialists. (Graduates) can essentially make a career out of their pasts by working for organizations that need peer specialists.”

Markley noted, “The program also assists in job searches. That’s one of the things I didn’t expect that I would be doing as sheriff, but I find myself going around trying to get some of these people jobs. I know if they get good employment and can get something steady with insurance, benefits, and a livable wage, then the chances are they’re not coming back to jail.”

One of the means in which the program teaches life skills to participants is through a component called Dress for Success. Every time a participant appears in court dressed in appropriate attire for the courtroom, a raffle ticket with that person’s name goes into a jar.

“We require that they come dressed for success in court just like they’re going to a job interview,” Robinson explained. “For example, the men are required to wear slacks, a button-up shirt, a tie or collared shirt. If they don’t receive one of those raffle tickets at court, it really bothers them. That ticket means a lot to the participants. It’s how we recognize them. We let them know, ‘We see you and thank you for dressing appropriately.’”

During commencement ceremonies, which ongoing participants are encouraged to attend, names are drawn from that jar for various prizes that have often been donated to the program for this purpose. Another bowl, known as the Fish Bowl, holds similar raffle tickets for participants who appeared before the judges during their regularly scheduled court dates and had no outstanding issues to be addressed. The prizes might be gift cards, baskets with household items, or even tickets to a sporting event.

Robinson added, “We do reward them when they are doing well. Believe it or not, that’s a good piece to keep them motivated. I’m telling you, you will be amazed. If they don’t walk away from that podium (in court) with a ticket after talking with the judge, they work even harder to make sure they’re going to all their groups for the next two weeks and all of their drug screenings, are not late, do not miss appointments with their case managers, and are home by curfew. It’s a big thing for our participants.”

This collaboration of numerous individuals and their respective organizations  has produced a multifaceted program environment where specific offenders receive treatment and learn life skills that provide the foundation for them to become productive and contributing members of their communities. Advocates of the Ocmulgee Circuit ATCC believe that the time and effort invested in community support meetings, bi-monthly court dates, drug testing, life skills, education, and more is entirely worthwhile when participants attain sobriety and regain their lives.

Next issue: drug court participants and judges share their stories.

Leave a Reply