Spalding County Superior Court Judge Tommy Hankinson spoke to those gathered, providing an update on the progress made in Drug Court since it began in January.
“We got our first participants in May and we now have five, two men and three women,” Hankinson said, adding that, “We can take up to 30 people in Drug Court.”
All participants in the program must undergo a rigorous screening process including criminal background checks and an in-depth personal evaluation for which they are required to pay a $250 fee, prior to inclusion in this unique alternative for those facing felony drug charges.
“The people in our group are addicts,” said Hankinson. “We’re trying to help them. These are addicts -- they aren’t social users.”
In addition to Hankinson, Spalding County District Attorney Scott Ballard is a key member of the Drug Court.
“We’ve got very high standards for who we let in,” said Ballard. “We want to maintain the integrity of the Drug Court.”
Once accepted, participants work through five phases designed to address the needs of the addicts throughout the various stages of recovery.
Phases one through three each last four months while phases five and six each run six months, for a total of two years.
All five phases include mandatory scheduled, and random, drug testing.
Individuals in phase one are tested every Monday and Wednesday. They also undergo random tests which are performed weekly during unannounced visits to their home.
The remaining four phases also include both types of drug tests, in decreasing frequency, representing the progress made in the participants’ recovery.
Other integral aspects of the Drug Court program are individual therapy and family education.
“They’re monitored -- we keep up with them,” said Hankinson. “We’re trying to get these folks to function like normal people, not wake up every morning and wonder ‘where am I going to get my drugs today?’”
“Easily 70 percent of our cases are drug cases -- possession or sale of drugs,” said Ballard. “Then if you closely looked at the other 30 percent, you’d see that a high percentage are drug-related. We’ve got to do something about drugs.”
Ballard then explained the three-pronged approach his office utilizes in Spalding County’s drug cases.
“Drug dealers -- they are going to jail,” said Ballard, who went on to say that casual users facing prosecution in drug-related cases may receive probation with supervision and mandatory drug testing.
“In the middle you have the drug addicts, and that’s where the problem has always been,” said Ballard, adding that for many of these individuals, incarceration is a “revolving door.”
The Drug Court, according to Ballard, is a unique alternative to traditional sentencing options.
“This is thinking outside the box like we’ve never seen around here before,” Ballard said. “This is a pretty cool concept that we’re onto here. We’re helping people. We’re changing some people’s lives.”
Joe Saia, a public defender with the Griffin Judicial Circuit who also works closely with the Drug Court, is thankful his clients now have this alternative available.
“From a defense lawyer’s point of view, not just a public defender, this is a dream come true,” said Saia. “This is a tremendous program.”
For those who successfully complete the two-year Drug Court program, the ultimate reward is a drug-free life.
One additional reward is the suspension of the sentence they would have received for the initial felony drug charge levied against them.
Though Hankinson, Ballard and Saia each represent different, and at times, oppositional, positions within the justice system, all three inaugural members of the Drug Court agree the program has the potential to address a critical and growing need in the Spalding County community.
“It’s like cancer -- it seems like everyone has been touched by drug abuse,” Hankinson said. “If you don’t know someone -- family or friends -- who has been affected by drugs, I don’t know where you’ve been.”