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The Drug Court Experience

<p><strong>Round table discussion</strong>. Fifteenth Judicial District Judge Jerry Don Ramey (left) and members of the drug court team meet before a recent drug court sessions. Also pictured are (from left) Booneville Police Chief Al Brown, Deputy Prosecuting Attorney Brian Mueller, public defender John Irwin, and probation and parole officer Jake Pennington and Tina Martin.</p>

Round table discussion. Fifteenth Judicial District Judge Jerry Don Ramey (left) and members of the drug court team meet before a recent drug court sessions. Also pictured are (from left) Booneville Police Chief Al Brown, Deputy Prosecuting Attorney Brian Mueller, public defender John Irwin, and probation and parole officer Jake Pennington and Tina Martin.

There is little chance most people have a working knowledge of drug court.

That’s understandable. Unless you are a participant of the program or a member of the administrative team, access to the proceedings is vicarious at best.

The Administrative Team

Because the proceedings are closed to the public, the only identifiable people connected to drug court is the administrative team.

In the Southern District of Logan County the players are 15th Judicial District Judge Jerry Don Ramey, Deputy Prosecuting Attorney Brain Mueller, public defender John Irwin, probation and parole officers Tina Martin and Jake Pennington, and, representing the people of Booneville, police chief Al Brown.

Coming Into

The Program

To become a participant of the program requires an arrest of some sort. A drug arrest will do it, of course, but the arrest can be drug-related, like a theft charge incurred while trying to support a drug habit.

Drug court, however, is not a defendant option. In fact, the prosecutor has final say on everyone entering the program.

Of course the prosecutor does listen to input from Martin after an assessment is completed — Mueller has never rejected anyone who otherwise qualified — from law enforcement involved in the arrest or with knowledge of other possible criminal activity. Or even from the defense side of the room.

Therein lies the difference. John Irwin, a public defender on the administrative team, said required training the court officials underwent insisted for a drug court to be successful it has to be a team effort. In other words, you have to stop, or being angry and a defendant for their actions.

Put another way, everybody has to go all in.

There are automatic exclusions from the program. Someone charged with a sexually-related or violent offense is not eligible. The reason is that a drug treatment plan is likely forthcoming and that will likely be carried out at a regional correctional facility — minimum security.

The Program

While legislation was passed to create drug court programs, administration of each particular program is left up to the individual district. They are not all the same.

Here, the program is set up so that a sanction-free participant could be in and out in 12 months. Not only that, he or she could be out with no record.

Some drug courts require a defendant to plead guilty to the afoul of the law offense, then expunge the offense at completion of the program. The administrative team here feels that is too binding.

The defendant is, nonetheless, on the hook for a criminal offense but there once the program is complete, because there has never been a judgement in the case, there is no paper trail. In the case of an expunged charge, Irwin says, there are still ways to find out an offense, potentially damaging a defendants chance at a job, promotion or something down the line.

A newcomer to the program is in Phase I of IV. He or she must report to the probation and parole office at least three times a week for drug screenings. Of course treatment comes into play here and the phase is, as Martin puts it, very intensive.

There are required classes and home visits by Martin and Pennington as well. Enrollment in a Narcotics Anonymous program, or something similar, is also required.

Still, because the habit doesn’t go away immediately there are failures. Sanctions for a misstep while in the program, such as a failed drug screening, can be for 48 hours, 90 days, 120 days or even a year. Too many problems and a participant can be sent back to a lower phase of the program, thus prolonging his or her stay in the program.

Nonetheless, the defendant must also provide progress updates. The updates can be their quest for a job — because the goal is to make the defendant a productive member of society the requirement to begin searching for work, or a way into school, is immediate. The court has adopted standards similar to the unemployment benefit requirements of the Arkansas Employment Security Division.

The court has funding allocated for treatment programs too, and there are many more choices than when it began in 2005 Mueller says. There are five or six different ones available without charge including Gateway, Harbor House and Quapaw, which allows a defendant to have their children in the facility along with them.

Regardless the phase, as the to-be productive members of society, fine payments are an issue. The City of Booneville does what it can to alleviate some of that with community services in lieu of fines, such as working at the city’s animal shelter, or even working for the sanitation department — it’s called riding the trash truck.

While any help on the fines is appreciated, Ramey said restitution is what it is, money owed to the offended.

According to Martin, Phase II is more of a hand-holding exercise, while Phase III is more of an ebb and flow and Phase IV is for the individual to begin to acclimate to society — regular court appearances are not mandated, though it is not unusual for a Phase IV defendant to attend anyway.

Then there is graduation and moving on with their life without a criminal conviction. Or better. Ramey said, it is possible for a defendant to have prior bad acts already on the record expunged because of a participant’s drug court program record.

A Day In Court

The day in court begins with the administrative team holding a meeting. In Booneville the setting is, ironically, the jury room. It is here the team discusses each of the participants.

The idea is so that everybody is on the same page concerning the progress of each member of the program. The subject matter is wide.

Are there sanctions that need to be, or have been imposed? What are they doing about getting a job, or enrolling in school, or even the military? How is their family situation? How are they progressing with fines and or restitution. Has law enforcement interacted with a participant? What has their overall attitude been?

Once inside, calling the docket is more of a formality with Martin reiterating the high points of what was said in the meeting on the record in court.

But more than that, Ramey addresses the successes, and shortcomings of each defendant before the entire court. There are rewards for the former in the shape of the attaboy clapping or a drawing for prizes at the end of each session. To be eligible a participant must be sanction free, and lucky. Prizes range from burgers to DVD players.

Graduation day is also a special day. Besides a certificate from the court there is a party — cake and punch of course — back at the probation and parole office.

Does It Work?

The answer from the administrative team is an unequivocal yes.

Even if it is anonymous and invisible but your vehicle may not be stolen, your house broken into — or worse — because a would be offender has rehabilitated.

No, despite the best efforts everybody doesn’t make it out and have to suffer the consequences. But those who do have their lives changed and by extension through their family and friends and co-workers and so forth, cannot help but have a positive impact on society.

Ramey, who inherited the program when he became the circuit judge five years ago — former circuit Judge and current Supreme Court Justice Paul Danielson led the drive to start the program — said he can recall only about eight who have left the program, only to return.

Irwin hedges his thoughts on success a little more, sort of, but still puts it between 85 and 90 percent, overall.

Drug court graduates also come back to mentor those who followed them into the program.

“It’s pretty neat when someone walks up to me in two and says, ‘do you remember me,’” said Ramey. “(The program) made a difference in their life.”

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