8 former drug offenders complete Walker County Drug Court program
by Briana Webster
Dec 15, 2013 | 4285 views | 0 0 comments | 53 53 recommendations | email to a friend | print
The courtroom was lined wall-to-wall Friday morning with those in the crowd eagerly awaiting ... not for a verdict or a sentencing, but for a graduation.

Eight people graduated from the Winter 2013 Walker County Drug Court program Friday, adding to the total of 100-plus graduates since its implementation in 2008. The program holds graduation ceremonies each quarter and is overseen by Walker County Circuit Judge Doug Farris, who says the program is actually a partnership between the Walker County Circuit Court and the Walker County District Attorney’s Office.

“As a result of their success of the program, their drug charges that they were charged with will be dismissed and their graduation present, if you will, will be a framed order of dismissal, signed by me, dated today,” Farris said.

Drug court is designed for people in the criminal justice system with drug charges who are non-violent, generally first-time drug offenders, who are eligible to apply for the program. Farris said if a person is accepted, “we put them in a 12- to 18-month program. It’s a rigorous program — a rehab program designed for them which consists of drug testing, counseling,” and are required to take Alcoholics Anonymous or Narcotics Anonymous classes, as appropriate.

Also, for those who haven’t graduated from high school, they are required to take GED classes, which are provided by the program. They must perform public service, pay fees, pay all old court-ordered monies and visit the courthouse every Friday for an individual review by Farris and the drug court committee. They are required to have a job, and they also have a curfew.

“It [the program] is to help with their addiction problems. If they’re successful and graduate from the program, their charges are dismissed,” Farris said. “When they come into the program, all the participants plead guilty. If they flunk out of the program, I sign a sentencing order and we transport them to the penitentiary. We have a graduated system of sanctions, with the ultimate sanction being expulsion, and then implementation of the sentence that they’ve agreed to and have pled to.”

Gratefully, according to Farris, the program’s “successes outweigh the failures.”

Before Friday’s ceremony, which was led in prayer by the Rev. Barry Lombard of Trinity Fellowship Church of God and hosted special guest speaker Judge Jerry K. Selman, Farris gave a few interesting and up-to-date facts about the drug court program:

•The eight graduates from Friday’s ceremony alone have paid more than $23,000 in fines, restitution and court costs. One particular individual paid more than $13,000.

•So far, the program has totaled more than $204,000 paid in old court-ordered monies. Farris said that money is then given to the circuit clerk’s office and is returned back to the victims of those crimes and the taxpayers of Walker County. Most of all, he added, it’s tax free and cost free to the people of Walker County.

•There are currently 65 people in the program, as of Friday.

•Since the inception of the program, they have accumulated more than 170,000 hours of community service, which can range anywhere from picking up trash to helping the Salvation Army or participating in celebrate recovery programs through churches, and so on.

Farris said the program has helped those organizations in the county save more than $1 million with their public service needs.

•It costs approximately $26,000 to keep someone in prison, Farris said.

This program has saved the taxpayers of Walker County incarceration costs that he said would be incalculable had those individuals gone to prison.

•The program typically takes 12 to 18 months for a person to complete, but Farris said the average is 14 to 15 months for an individual.

•The drug court program will usually graduate 30 to 40 participants per year.

The individuals are reviewed by Farris every Friday at 9 a.m.

The majority, he said, wear a drug patch that is a continuous evaluation which is tested then replaced with another patch. It allows Farris and other officials to see over a 15-day period, or every two weeks, if that person has taken any drugs; it also can test for alcohol.

If someone is not on the patch, he or she is on what Farris called a “color-code” system and is tested three to five times a week.

The program consists of three phases: Phase 1, everyone is reviewed every Friday; Phase 2, everyone is reviewed twice a month; Phase 3, everyone is reviewed once a month.

“Our ultimate goal is for the participants to take responsibility for their lives and their actions and to be productive citizens,” Farris said.

Lombard shared a few verses from the Bible and gave words of encouragement to the graduates and the crowd.

“There are times when we certainly need someone to reach out and to show that care that helps us and undergirds us,” Lombard said. “ ... Everybody has times, not just one time, but times in their lives when they feel completely alone. We need to know that there’s that One within us.”

Afterward Judge Selman spoke to those on hand for the graduation ceremony about a short story that focused on a journey. He related his personal journey to that of one’s journey through life.

“Once you have picked your goal you have decided where you want to go, and that’s step one. … Life is a series of choices, and where we end up in life is the sum total of the choices that we make,” Selman said. “… Recreational drugs are a dead end on this little road of life.”

Before each ceremony, the graduates are asked to write an essay about their life before, during and after the program. This quarterly essay winner was Cecil Butler.

Not only was Butler recognized and asked to read his essay in front of the courtroom, but he also won a $250 gift card courtesy of former graduate Rodney Bennett.

“You see, I lived to use and used to live, and did whatever it took to get my drugs. I lied, cheated, stole, begged and manipulated everybody and everyone who entered into my life,” Butler read. “… My life has changed so much since I went through drug court. I have a drive and desire for things again. I set goals and I also have a relationship with my son and family again.”

After the ceremony, graduate Amanda Harvill and Butler commented on how the program helped change who they are today.

“I think it’s a great program. It helped me change my life,” Harvill said. “I wouldn’t be who I am today without it.”

Butler, 44, who said he had been using drugs since he was 14 years old, added that the program has totally “changed my life. Before I entered drug court, I didn’t have a life. It’s just totally changed everything about me. I couldn’t even hold my head up straight, and now I can look people in the face and I can be proud of what I am today.”