Sheriff-elect Nick Smith will be implementing the Mercy Project at the county level shortly after taking office.
The Mercy Project, modeled after a program developed at Seminary Police Department in Mississippi, allows those struggling with addiction to seek help from law enforcement without the fear of repercussions.
Approximately 30 people from Walker and neighboring counties have enrolled in the Mercy Project since Smith started the program at the Cordova Police Department in February 2017. More than 20 completed either a short-term or long-term treatment program.
Smith said the Mercy Project, which will be implemented at no cost to taxpayers, will be offered in conjunction with other programs that currently exist in the county.
For example, it is not intended to or equipped to take the place of Drug Court, an intensive 18-month program offered since 2009 that gives defendants an opportunity to have their charges dismissed in some cases.
The Mercy Project is one step in Smith's plan to combat the opioid crisis that has gripped Walker County.
"We've got to attack the drug problem on different levels. Arresting the same people over and over again is not working. We need to reach the people who have a serious drug problem but haven't gotten caught yet. If we can get them help before they find themselves in the criminal justice system, that's where I think the Mercy Project can make a difference," Smith said.
Beginning Feb. 1, any resident of Walker County who comes to the Walker County Sheriff's Office seeking to overcome an addiction will be screened into the program. Applicants can turn over any drugs or paraphernalia in their possession and will not be charged.
Training will be provided to everyone associated with the Mercy Project, including sheriff's department staff, to ensure that the applicant is treated with appropriate compassion and respect.
For example, the official policy for the program will state that participants will never be placed in a booking room at the jail or similar room at the sheriff's department while attempting to enroll.
Participation in the program will be denied if the individual has an outstanding arrest warrant, is under 18 and does not have parental consent, is a registered sex offender, or has had three or more drug-related convictions with at least one being for possession with intent to distribute, trafficking or a drug violation committed in a school zone.
Individuals who have pending court cases will also be denied.
The goal of the program is to have applicants placed in treatment within 12 to 24 hours of the request for help.
Smith's goal is to eventually partner with municipalities throughout the county so that every department would have a protocol for assisting individuals who seek help.
At the sheriff's department, the shift supervisor will be responsible for assigning a deputy to begin the intake process and remain with the individual until a member of the Care Team arrives.
The Mercy Project relies on volunteers who make up a Care Team to provide emotional support and guidance to the applicant and complete the paperwork involved in the intake process. Those who are comfortable doing so accompany the applicant to the detox or in-patient treatment program to which he or she has been admitted and remain in touch with the individual during their treatment via supportive phone calls and letters.
Upon the individual's release, the Care Team is available to become part of a wider support system that he or she will need to continue living in recovery.
In Cordova, four people form the core of the Care Team. Anticipating increased enrollment once the program is implemented county-wide, Smith is seeking more volunteers willing to serve on the Care Team.
Care Team members must be at least 21 years old, submit to a background check and have at least two years in recovery if they have previously been treated for a substance use disorder.
Individuals or groups who would like to support the Mercy Project but cannot join the Care Team may help by sending care packages to individuals in treatment or covering the cost of detox or fees associated with placement in a treatment facility.
In Cordova, individuals were placed in facilities outside Walker County, with the exception of Hope for Women.
Smith said he is eager to speak to any local group who has a resource to offer to Mercy Project applicants that he has not been made aware of in the last two years. Smith can be reached at 522-6112.
Smith is quick to point out that the Mercy Project will not work for everyone. For example, some who enrolled in Cordova walked away from treatment early, a choice that carried no legal penalty because it is a voluntary program.
However, he has seen enough success stories in the past two years to convince him that it is worth the effort.
"It's not going to solve all of the county's problems, but it is going to give people an outlet to give themselves a better life," Smith said.