Drug courts are a very successful option to help deal with the overcrowding of the states prisons and the ever escalating number of drug offenses clogging the criminal court system. The huge number of drug cases have forced judges and prosecutors to consider other options in regard to ways to prosecute and punish those charged with drug related offenses.
At the national level, drug courts began in 1994 in the famous spring break town of Miami, in Dade County, Fla. Arkansas followed the lead and began establishing drug courts in 1994. Arkansas currently has 40 established courts.
A new drug court is currently being organized in Melbourne to cover both Izard and Fulton Counties by January of 2010, according to 16th Judicial District Circuit Court Judge John Dan Kemp. Kemp will preside over the newly established court. The judge currently presides over drug court cases in Independence, Stone and Clebourne County.
Carol L. Roddy, State Drug Court Coordinator said, "The programs truly are a success." She says that because addiction is a chronic illness, like diabetes or heart disease, locking these individuals up is not going to solve the problem, it is simply costing taxpayers huge amounts yearly.
Roddy said the drug court programs are very structured and must be adhered to by the accused person in order to complete the program and avoid a prison term and possibly a felony charge on their criminal record.
The mission of the drug court is not only to lower prison populations and the costs associated with incarceration, but also to reduce crime, restore family function and promote a healthy drug free longterm lifestyle, in many cases, without the individual having a criminal record.
Unlike traditional probation and parole programs, drug court is much more strenuous and requires a lot more of the participants than a monthly check-in with an officer.
Rhonda Sharp, public relations official with the Arkansass Department of Community Corrections (DCC) in Little Rock, said the drug court program in Arkansas is a collaborative effort between both state and local resources, including the DCC, local judges, prosecutors and public defenders. She said funding is provided by legislature through a variety of different options including general funds. The funding is used to pay for probation officers, clerical intake assistants as well as drug counselors. These are new jobs added to the local economy.
According to the National Association of Drug Court Programs (NADCP), the success of these cost effective programs cannot be denied. At the national level, since the inception of these courts, more research has been conducted on drug courts than any other criminal justice program.
These extensive studies show that drug courts reduce crime over 35 percent over other sentencing options. Drug courts also produce cost savings ranging from $4,000 to $12,000 per client. These cost savings reflect the decrease in incarceration costs as well as potential for reoffense and costs associated with the court system. Studies also show that those involved in the strenuous drug court are six times more likely to stay in treatment than other means.
Third Judicial District Prosecuting Attorney Henry Boyce said that he has seen offenders choose prison time over drug court due to the expectations on the person. He also has been present at ceremonies where the participants have graduated the program and were able to shred their conviction papers in the courtroom, sealing their record of the crime.
Judge Kemp said the newly established program will be similar in nature to the other programs he oversees.
He said, although the funding is in place for the drug court program in Izard and Fulton County, officials are seeking office space. He said funding is provided through both DCC and state legislature. Kemp said the goal is to begin the court in January.
Kemp said the program works in phases that generally occur over a one year time frame but is dependant upon the participation and whether or not the participant receives any strikes during the program.
Some of the requirements for an offender to participate in drug court are:
* referral by the court
* be a resident of the county in which the court presides
* must have active or recent drug abuse related felony
*no mental issues
* the crime may be a
* no charges pending
* no sex crimes
* no past felonies
* agree to live a drug free lifestyle
* attend all required meetings
* enter a guilty plea on the current charge
* admission into the program must be approved by the prosecuting attorney, judge and drug court team must provide input.
After these requirements are met and the individual is accepted into the drug court program, the recovery and accountability process begins.
Kemp said the participants must participate in Narcotics Anonymous and or Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, submit to random drug tests and meet bi-monthly with their probation officer. In addition to the meetings, those enrolled must complete community service, and prior to graduation from the program, must obtain gainful employment or be enrolled in a college or training center.
These aspects allow the individual to function as a normal member of society and work and pay taxes. This allows them to remain with their families and eliminate or lower the need for possible governmental assistance for the family members which might occur had the offender been incarcerated.
In addition to the obvious benefits of the program over traditional incarceration, Roddy said the courts help participants obtain their GED, help them get their driver's license back as well as provide ongoing drug treatment options in the form of both group and community therapy.
Kemp says the program strives to make the meeting with probation officers as convenient as possible for the participants in order to help them achieve completion of the program. He said when the program begins there will be alternating monthly meeting places in both Melbourne and Salem to allow for easier access to the office and reduce any time the person may have to take off work.
Following successful completion of the program, participants are eligible to have their records sealed of the felony charges. The judge also said a piece of recent legislation, Act 1491 of 2009, has given new power to drug court judges for the purpose of record expungement, enabling more participants to have their records cleared.
Although, the DCC said there is no immediate plan for the establishment of a drug court in Sharp County, Rhonda Sharp, with DCC, said it may be a reality when funding becomes available.
For more information on drug court visit one of these informational Web sites: http://courts.arkansas.gov and look for the drug court link.