An epidemic of methamphetamine and illegal drug use has hit the counties of the 16th Judicial District, which includes, Fulton, Izard, Independence, Stone and Cleburne counties, according to Circuit Judge Keith Rutledge. Trying to provide a solution to battle the drug problem, Rutledge would like to establish a drug court program in the district. He is hoping to recruit a team to get the program off the ground in September.
The present methods of finding a solution to the drug problem are not working, he said, and it is time to try something different. To do this he hopes to establish a drug court. This may help save lives, he said.
A drug court is part of a circuit court system that is presided over by a circuit judge who will compel a drug offender to enter and remain in treatment for drug abuse, he explained.
He said it's a high intensity program which includes drug testing three times a week. The participants are required to attend treatment programs and meetings four to five times per week.
Rutledge recently attended a seminar in Pensacola, Fla., and has observed drug courts that are already implemented. He said at the seminar he learned that individuals do not set out to become addicts. He said Little Rock and Fayetteville already have drug courts in existence and it's been a success in Fayetteville.
"It changes people's lives," he said. The damage can be undone if offenders are made to be functional and productive and keep working. He said, "If we don't turn the tides, if we think we have high expenses in nursing homes now, the expenses will be astronomical."
He said that when society can see people who have been to the bottom and come clean again, the results are amazing.
He explained that it takes about a year to see the results and get the participants where they are no longer taking drugs. He reviewed facts and numbers in 1970 and said there were 1,369 inmates in Arkansas prisons. Currently there are about 23,000 in Arkansas prisons; about 80 percent of those have been drug/alcohol abusers, with one-third of those incarcerated on drug charges.
It costs about $15,000 to $20,000 per year to keep an inmate incarcerated. But if they are placed in one of the programs implemented through the drug court it could cost only $3,000 to $4,000, and the participants will have the ability to return to society clean, sober and functioning, he said.Through the power of the drug court the judge would give the person facing charges a choice of time in prison or a program of rehabilitation.
In order to be eligible to participate in the program an offender must be 18 years old or older and have been charged in circuit court with a non-violent crime and have a drug abuse problem. It could include juveniles who are charged in circuit court as adults.
Rutledge maintains that until the illegal drug problem is addressed, with an emphasis on methamphetamine use, the counties will experience huge costs in health care, incarceration, nursing home care and additional costs to provide care for those who have destroyed their ability to function in society. The goals of the drug court are to see a reduction in drugs, reduction in repeat offenders.
He believes separating the drug abusers from the drug traffickers and dealers will be one solution to the problem. With strong court-ordered monitoring and supervision the rehabilitation rate will increase threefold, he said.
His hopes are the drug court will accomplish a reduction in the backlog in the criminal court and allow prosecutors to concentrate on other cases. He said the drug court will not be a haven for drug traffickers, dealers and manufacturers.
He said law enforcement officers and members of the drug task force told him the present methods are not working; it's a case of catch and release. He said in this part of the world methamphetamines are the worst drug.
Rutledge is hoping to get the public involved to serve as mentors and consultants to find a way to make this program a success. He said it takes federal grants to fund these programs. He is hoping to begin talking to area schools and civic clubs and have them view videotapes.
Gene Maguffee, clerk of the circuit court in Fulton County, said the idea behind this program is to get help to the drug users, to have them appear in court, get a plea and get them into a facility for help.
Maguffee said Rutledge use to serve as chief deputy prosecuting attorney in the district so he knows firsthand the problems that exist. He said if Rutledge gets this program off the ground it would take drug related cases from Circuit Judge John Dan Kemp's docket to alleviate the already overburdened courts.