Walker County District Attorney Bill Adair does not need statistics to tell him about how addiction has impacted local families. He has seen the faces of the loved ones who feel they have nowhere to turn.
On a recent "Journey Series" webinar on the role of law enforcement in addiction and treatment, Adair said that he is often stopped on his way into his office each morning.
"The thing that they will tell me is that their child, their grandchild, their brother or sister has got a problem, and 'Bill, can you help?'" Adair said.
He added that members of law enforcement who want to help such families are put into a difficult situation because they are not trained as counselors or as experts in addiction.
For years, the only option that seemed available was arresting individuals who use illegal drugs. That tactic lost its effectiveness as the opioid epidemic continued to claim more lives.
"Though I was going to be brought to it kicking and screaming because I am an old style prosecutor and I do believe that you have to have punishment when you break the law, I did also understand that we are dealing with something that is much greater than it used to be," Adair said.
Adair gave his blessing to Walker County's Drug Court and expanded the county's pre-trial diversion program so that there were other options for dealing with individuals with a substance use disorder.
A Veterans Court was also established. Much like Drug Court, it allows participants the chance to have their cases dismissed or receive probation instead of jail time after following a set of stringent guidelines that includes paying fines and staying sober.
Those not eligible for those courts may be eligible for a pre-trial diversion program, which takes some non-violent offenders with drug-related charges out of the criminal justice system and gives them an opportunity to receive treatment.
A citizens advisory board assists Adair in determining which defendants are accepted into the pre-trial diversion program.
Adair noted that dealers are not eligible to participate in such programs.
"I believe people that sell drugs ought to go to prison. That's my belief, and that's what we try to do here in my office," Adair said.
Individuals who steal or commit other crimes that harm others because of their addiction will also be required to serve time while being offered an opportunity at treatment rather than being offered treatment only, he added.
Adair stressed that Drug Court operates at no cost to the citizens of Walker County. For the participants themselves, 250 have graduated since 2009, 82 have obtained their GED, 23 have enrolled in college and 105 have received their driver's license.
Complications to efforts to help individuals in addiction include the volume of cases as well as the question of how to cover the cost of treatment and the operation of speciality courts like Drug Court and Veterans Court.
"You have to weigh that out. How much money do you charge? Do you take into account the amount of money somebody makes or the lack of money that they have to keep these programs going? Obviously, the state of Alabama does not want to pay for these programs, so they have to be able to operate on their own," Adair said.
Walker County is currently participating in a project of the Alabama Department of Mental Health and the Recovery Resource Center in Birmingham that connects people involved in the criminal justice system to treatment.
The pilot program, Reducing Opioid Addiction through Diversion (ROAD), is currently operating in Walker and Jefferson counties. It is funded by a federal grant from the Bureau of Justice Assistance.
Services are confidential and free.
Assessments determine the level of care most likely to benefit each individual, and treatment centers funded by ADMH provide treatment at no cost or at reduced cost.
Certified recovery support specialists, who are individuals in long-term recovery, share their own experiences of overcoming addiction with client and help them with the referral process, Leslie Plaia, program director at Recovery Resource Center, said during the webinar.
Recovery support specialists stay in touch after clients are released from jail.
"One of the reasons this is important is that in the two weeks after they're released, recently incarcerated people are almost 42 times more likely to die from an overdose than the general population," Plaia said.
For more information about the Recovery Resource Center, call 205-458-3377.
"The Journey Series" is based on "The Journey Day" offered in Jefferson County by the Recovery Ministries of the Episcopal Diocese of Alabama. The Recovery Ministries partnered with the Walker County Health Action Partnership to offer it in Walker County.
Originally planned as a one-day event, the virtual series was developed after the coronavirus pandemic made in-person gatherings unsafe. It will continue each Thursday through Oct. 8.
To register, visit www.walkerrecoverymap.org/journey-series.