April 30, 2008 Edition

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New drug court helping
officials combat problem

Judge Phil Smith talks with a drug court participant during a session on Thursday afternoon. Drug court is a structured program that offers drug-related offenders a chance to turn their lives around.
Leslie Ginn
Staff Writer

Officials in Lawrence County are using a new tool to help fight the drug abuse problem. A recently-established drug court system works to help offenders change their lives while still holding them accountable for their actions.

The mission of drug court is to stop the abuse of drugs, including alcohol, and related criminal activity without requiring the offender to go to prison. Nationally, drug courts began in Dade County, Fla., in 1989. Arkansas began the program in 1994. There are now about 40 drug court programs established in Arkansas. Lawrence County's drug court program started approximately two months ago.

"If a person's motivation is to find the easiest way out of their legal problems, then drug court is not for them," Circuit Court Judge Phil Smith said. "If someone desires to be drug free and solve their addiction issue, then drug court is the best possible place there is."

Judge Smith, who oversees the Lawrence County drug court, has operated the drug court in Randolph County for about three years.

"I estimate a 75-80 percent success rate in Randolph County," Smith said.

Process explained

The process begins with a Lawrence County adult pleading guilty to a drug-related, non-violent crime committed under the influence of the drug or to maintain drug use. The individual must meet certain requirements to be referred to drug court.

Each participant must also desire to enter the program, which is available to adults of all ages. Smith said he has worked with participants' ranging from 18 to 68. To date there are approximately three people approved, plus two pending, to enter the Lawrence County drug program.

Lawrence County Sheriff Dan Ellison is a proponent of the program, as well.

"Drug court allows someone to be held accountable without going to prison," Ellison said. "It is a step forward and has had some success in the drug scene arena. The bottom line is that it is the person's desire and responsibility to choose against a drug situation that makes them successful."

A team of professionals is available to assist the drug court participant through the five-phase program. The team consists of the prosecuting attorney, intake officer, probation officer and counselor. The judge also plays an important part in the effort. Through weekly contact, the judge holds the individual accountable.

"There are only two ways to get out of drug court," Smith said. "You either do the program right, or you go to the pen."

The drug court team in Lawrence County is housed in the former Danny Gibson Insurance offices located at 1007 West Main Street in Walnut Ridge.

Lawrence County Adult Probation and Parole Officer Jim Jones said, "This building serves approximately 300 probation and parole clients, including drug court participants."

In Lawrence County, the drug court counselor is Lisa Garner, and the probation officer is April Faughn. The intake officer is Robin Thompson, who presently serves both Lawrence and Randolph counties. The prosecuting attorney varies with each case.

Drug court is state and federally funded, but Lawrence County will not be fully funded until the legislative session in 2009. Smith said they are sharing some resources with Randolph County until full funding is fulfilled.

Promotes individual responsibility

Each phase of the program is designed to help promote responsibility through accomplishing program requirements. Individuals must call in daily, be drug tested several times a week, hold down employment, complete community service, participate in both individual and group counseling and attend drug court weekly, among other things.

"Drug court is intense counseling and supervision," Jones said.

The drug court program provides strict and consistent structure to participants. The team is designed to identify problem areas and hold participants accountable, as well as to encourage them to continue moving forward in the right direction

"It takes both ends to make it work," Smith said. "This is the best drug treatment program in the country. If people had to pay for what they get, they couldn't afford it."

The phases begin extremely intensive and progress to increased freedom. It takes anywhere from two to five years to accomplish all the phases depending on personal progress.

"The program demands the individual to call on time, to be honest," Smith said. "It actually helps teach coping skills while demanding a person to completely move out of the drug culture."

Program has many benefits

In addition, the participant can remain with and help to support their family.

"It makes someone more employable and dependable," Smith said. "Employers can take a chance on a drug-court participant, because we require regular drug testing and dependability."

The program also has other benefits. Overcrowded prison space is freed up for more serious offenders, and the cost to the taxpayers is reduced from $45 a day for incarceration to about $4.50 a day for drug court participation. National research shows that drug court achieves lower re-arrests and re-convictions than comparison groups.

Drug court is held in the Lawrence County courthouse each Thursday at 1:30 in either the main courtroom or conference room. Sessions are open to the public.

The big pay-off for program participants comes at graduation. The judge hands the graduate their criminal charges to run through a shredder rather than have them become a permanent part of their record.

"We don't win them all," Smith said. "It's the person's attitude that makes all the difference. Drug court helps uncover the good and decent people hidden under the drug."

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