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Court to divert minor drug users into rehab

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POSTED: January 7, 2009 9:35 a.m.
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Minor offenses, such as growing small amounts of marijuana, could be handled in the Liberty County Drug Court.

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Liberty County Monday launched a court designed to divert drug users from a life of addiction.
Previously, the only available solution was to sentence drug offenders to jail time or probation, but with the new rehabilitation program, they now have another option — one that, according to officials, will benefit the entire community.
Atlantic Superior Court Judge Jay Stewart, who has gotten the drug court assignment, said the program was designed as an alternative to placing drug offenders in jail. Its purpose, he said, is to fix the problem by providing clinical help to drug users.
According to Stewart, the Liberty County Drug Court has paired up with the Recovery Place, a local rehabilitation facility. Together they have created a 24-month program that will work toward breaking offenders’ habits while simultaneously preparing them for success in society.
“If they are clinically addicted to drugs, they often don’t ever get treated, so they reoffend,” Stewart said. “Sentences get worse or more significant.”
In return for a guilty plea in drug court to their offenses, the program will include drug counseling and access to support groups, among other things.
“If they have no job skills we are going to ensure that they get vocational training,” Stewart said.
If the offenders successfully complete the program, their charges are dropped and they don’t serve any jail time. To this end, Liberty County taxpayers wouldn’t be responsible for the money it costs to house, feed and provide medical care to offenders.
“It will save taxpayers’ dollars because it costs approximately $32,000 a year to keep someone incarcerated,” Stewart said, in comparison to the $2,500 cost for the program. “It’s a win, win situation.”
Stewart, who initiated creation of the program about a year ago, said there are strict requirements for participants. Rules include keeping fulltime employment, staying current with all court fees and court ordered child support, and attending AA/NA meetings and regular court appearances. They are also subject to random drug tests.
“The plan is to have people get treatment,” said AG Wells, longtime Hinesville defense attorney. “We wanted to do something positive.”
Stewart said the program is strict and participants will be held to high standards, but there are no set rules as to when someone should be dismissed.
“Some can definitely earn their way out of the program,” the judge said. “But it’ll be on a case by case basis.”
He said there are also limitations on who can be accepted into the program.
“Violence, sex offenders are excluded and are not deemed qualified,” he said.
Stewart said other places have already seen success since implementing such programs. Judge Amanda Williams with the Glynn County-Brunswick Drug Court, has been working with a similar program for 10 years and has seen over 300 people graduate successfully.
“Ninety-five percent of them, three years out, have not been arrested,” Williams said.
She said the key is actually treating the disease, which does not happen when they are put into jail.
“Their minds actually physically change,” she said. “You have to do a lot of treatment. There’re all kinds of things you have to work on.”
Further putting things in perspective, Williams said that in one year, the program saved the taxpayers more than $7 million. Williams agreed the program is a definite win, win situation for the community.
The only problem Williams has encountered is people sometimes thinking she is soft on crime. But, she said, those people don’t understand that her program is tough and that jail often isn’t a solution to a problem that when left untreated can seep into families, showing up generation after generation.
“It’s a chronic relapsing and a family disease,” Williams said.
The first Liberty County participants signed up on Monday morning.
“I think it’ll be successful for Liberty County,” Wells said. “I’m very encouraged.”

Courier staff writer Frenchi Jones contributed to this article.
 

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