It took years of planning but, thanks to two area legislators who fought for funding, a drug court to serve Izard and Fulton counties is finally becoming reality.
In August, defense attorneys began seeking approval for clients facing felony drug charges to be accepted into the drug court program.
"Drug courts are expanding all over the nation because studies show they work," said Daniel Brightwell, the assistant prosecutor who will handle Izard/Fulton Drug Court cases. "Other communities have learned it is cheaper to treat drug offenders than it is to send them to prison."
Under the program, people with substance abuse and addiction problems are closely monitored as they seek drug and mental health treatment in an effort to kick drugs, get rid of bad influences and change their lives for the better.
Izard County leaders sparked a big controversy, early this year, when they decided to buy a building in downtown Melbourne to house the drug court and other county offices.
Many residents opposed spending more than $400,000 to buy and renovate the former drug store property.
Others were not so sure they favored a program that would regularly invite drug offenders to gather in town.
Lost in the controversy are details on exactly what a drug court does.
"People need to learn this is not a slap on the hand," said Judge John Dan Kemp, the Judge for the Izard/Fulton County Drug Court. "Drug court is a tough program. It is much more intensive than regular probation."
According to Judge Kemp, drug court applicants are carefully screened to try to choose offenders who, obviously, have problems but, also, have a willingness to work hard to make changes in their lives.
Those accepted plead guilty to the felony charges they are facing, are given probation and transferred to the jurisdiction of the drug court, where the work begins.
Drug court participants must agree to regular drug testing and to attend group and individual counseling sessions. They must also get involved in groups like Narcotics Anonymous or Alcoholics Anonymous and obtain employment or seek job training.
During their 12 to 18 months in the program, participants will be expected to progress through the first four phases of drug court treatment.
During phase one, which lasts 12 weeks, the offender reports in three times a week and is drug tested three times a week.
Participants are constantly evaluated by a seven person drug court team. The team consists of the judge, a prosecutor, a public defender, an intake officer, a treatment counselor, a probation officer and a law enforcement representative.
The team realizes it is not easy to change old habits and become a drug free, responsible citizen. So, those who violate rules are, usually, not automatically thrown out of the program.
According to Judge Kemp, participants are given "three strikes" for violations like positive drug tests or ignoring rules and responsibilities. But those strikes come with consequences.
For "strike one," the offender is given seven days in jail. That penalty is doubled to 14 days if deception, such as trying to manipulate a drug test or lying, is involved.
On "strike two," the penalty is three weeks in jail, doubled for deception.
"Strike three" leads to a one year sentence at a regional correction facility, where the offender undergoes a 270 day drug treatment program, before returning to the local program.
After graduation from drug court, there is phase 5, an after care program.
Those who fail to graduate because of continued violations face having their probation revoked and serving their full prison sentence.
Judge Kemp has seven year's experience running drug court programs in Independence, Cleburne and Stone counties. He has seen many drug court successes and disappointments over the years but believes the good outweighs the bad.
"Usually, court cases involve problems and prison. In drug court, you give people a chance to change their lives and become drug free," said Kemp. "You have a chance to help people, who are willing to work hard, to help themselves, their families, and their community."
Fulton County Prosecutor Dwayne Plumlee is all for giving the drug court concept a chance.
"I don't think drug court is for everyone but I've seen some people (in court) who, I think, can benefit, salvageable offenders," Plumlee said.
Izard County Judge Rayburn Finley took a lot of heat for supporting the use of county money to create the space for drug court to operate.
But Judge Finley, who is retiring at the end of the year, believes Izard County residents will, one day, see the benefits of helping more drug offenders get treatment.
"I have no regrets," said Finley. "I think it will turn out that people will see that this will help. If it will get through and save even one or two from that stuff, it will be worth every bit of it."
The state drug court office says it costs about $250,000 a year to cover office space, employees, drug testing and other expenses.
Judge Kemp credits Izard County State Senator Paul Miller and Fulton County Rep. Curren Everett with obtaining funding to get the local drug court going.
Kemp will seek continued funding when lawmakers put together the state's next two year budget.
The Izard/Fulton County Drug Court will meet in official session twice a month.
In September, the meetings will take place in Izard County.
October's sessions will be held in Fulton County, establishing an alternating schedule.