Nothing could make Crystal Lea put down the crack pipe.
The 21-year-old went to jail more than 12 times in two years for possessing crack cocaine, and her parents sent her off to rehabilitation once.
“I would go to jail for 30 or 45 days, and then I would get probation,” Ms. Lea said. “But then I couldn’t pass the drug screen, so I would go right back.”
Then she found out about Hamilton County Drug Court, a program that gives repeat felony offenders treatment rather than jail and provides close monitoring and drug testing for up to 24 months.
“I thought it was just another probation program, and that it would get me out of jail,” Ms. Lea said.
And though she had tried to quit drugs before, discovering the drug court coincided with her all-time low point, she said.
“I just didn’t want to live the way I was living,” said Ms. Lea, who already has graduated from the program.
That date marks the drug court’s third year of operation. Seven recovering addicts will graduate that day, and will join 11 others who have graduated since 2005, said Elaine Kelly, the court’s coordinator.
Ms. Lea, who now is clean, works a full-time job and attends college, and others are examples of how well the program can work, Ms. Kelly said.
There are failures, however, Ms. Kelly admits. The program’s first participant, Mary Swafford, violated the rules of drug court. She was ordered to serve an eight-year sentence in a penitentiary on theft and forgery charges, records show.
Eight people were kicked out of the program this year, Ms. Kelly said. But advocates insist that failures are expected and, despite modest success numbers, the drug court is working.
The program operates with a full-time staff of three, Ms. Kelly and two others.
Criminal Court Judge Rebecca Stern oversees the judicial component of the program, and the court has a dedicated attorney in the Hamilton County District Attorney’s Office and the Hamilton County Public Defender’s Office.
Ms. Kelly said the program is funded through a state grant. She estimated the per-person cost at $14 a day. All the participants were facing lengthy prison time, which she said would have cost about $60 a day, by comparison.
Other drug courts in neighboring counties have graduated more people, but Judge Stern points out that Hamilton County’s program targets an extremely difficult population. These 18 offenders were serious addicts who likely wouldn’t have kicked drugs otherwise, she said.
“I have several people whose lives have been saved and are now functioning members of society,” Judge Stern said. “What value do you place on someone’s life?”
Ms. Kelly agreed.
“I’m convinced that most of these people, if they had not found the drug court, because addiction is a progressive disease, many would be dead now,” she said.
The drug court provides a piece of hope in the long line of drug offenders Judge Stern sees constantly in her courtroom, she said.
“It is the only thing in the criminal justice system that gives me hope,” she said.
Adam Crisp covers education issues for the Times Free Press. He joined the paper's staff in 2007 and initially covered crime, public safety, courts and general assignment topics. Prior to Chattanooga, Crisp was a crime reporter at the Savannah Morning News and has been a reporter and editor at community newspapers in southeast Georgia. In college, he led his student paper to a first-place general excellence award from the Georgia College Press Association. He earned ...