Seametrus Battle cries as he thanks his family and friends for their support. Five participants in the drug court system graduated from the program in a ceremony Monday afternoon. The program has graduated 50 people. Staff Photo by Jake Daniels/Chattanooga Times Free Press
Seametrus Battle Sr. dabbed tears from the corners of his eyes as he stood before a packed courtroom.
The 38-year-old man wasn’t facing Judge Rebecca Stern as she looked down from the bench. Instead, he stood next to her Monday as she congratulated him and four other Hamilton County Drug Court graduates.
Battle said after the ceremony that for a decade he slid deeper into cocaine addiction. What seemed like an escape after the end of a difficult marriage wound up a daily habit that consumed his life.
He has been on and off probation for nonviolent offenses over the years. He tested positive for drugs in a court-ordered screening about 18 months ago and had to figure out what to do. His girlfriend and his lawyer helped him choose drug court.
Now he’s got a job and mentors new participants in the drug court program.
“Drug court, they’re there for you,” he said Tuesday. “They know you’re going to mess up at times, but they’re not going to give up.”
Since the local drug court began in November 2005, 53 people have completed the minimum 14-month program. The White House Office of National Drug Control Policy marks this week as national Drug Court Commencement week.
When Hamilton County District Attorney General Bill Cox asked Stern to participate in a new drug court nearly eight years ago, she admits she was skeptical.
“I thought it was ridiculous,” Stern said. “I just felt that people should just say no to drugs. I didn’t really understand addiction.”
But after attending other drug courts in other jurisdictions and going through grant-funded training, the idea sold her.
The first bad news was that there wasn’t any local money to start the program. The next bad news was she didn’t have a staff to do the work. And her criminal case load wasn’t getting any lighter.
With some help from Tennessee’s former U.S. Rep. Zach Wamp and a few well-placed phone calls over about a year, she had funding to get started and hired Elaine Kelly to coordinate the program.
Kelly began applying for grants and also training at U.S. Justice Department seminars to set up the local drug court. She sells drug court through a combination of her ever-updating statistics on recidivism, success rates of the court, cost savings and her enthusiasm for the mission — recovering useful people.
The court doesn’t take violent offenders. It’s not a diversion program, which is designed to avoid criminal charges and a criminal record for some violators. Drug court participants must resolve ongoing criminal court problems and plead guilty. Even if they complete the program, those convictions stick.
To make sure he gets good candidates, Assistant District Attorney Brian Finlay checks the criminal history of drug court applicants.
Mostly, days in Criminal Court have a somber tone. Trials, verdicts and rulings often radically alter people’s lives. So successful participants and graduation in the drug court are a nice change of pace, Finlay said.
“It’s nice to see the people who do well and then don’t end up back in the system,” he said.
As for the numbers, Kelly calls on her assistant, Crystal Couch, and rattles off the most recent figures — 53 percent success rate, 42 active participants, 17 percent recidivism at two years, 83 percent employed.
The program calculates a cost of $12.70 per participant per day as compared to $63.41 per day in Tennessee Department of Correction’s custody, she said.
Kelly likes the figures and said they help convince the data minded. She also enjoys graduation day when the joyful tears come.
But everything building toward that day is what keeps her motivated.
“It’s kind of humbling,” she said. “People share the most intimate details of their lives. You see them evolve into this amazing person that’s always lived within them.”
Some national groups have released reports in recent years criticizing drug courts, which number about 2,800 in the United States. The Justice Policy Institute, a Washington, D.C.-based group trying to reduce the use of incarceration, stated in a March report that communities should look for front-end solutions that provide treatment before a person reaches the court system.
The institute also recommends more alternative sentencing and diversion programs.
Stern said the local operation is effective because it’s not a diversion program and participants face jail time — a serious incentive to commit to the program.
The average sentence is nearly eight years, Stern said, and the local drug court only admits offenders with multiple, nonviolent offenses. Other systems take misdemeanor offenders or first-time criminals on diversion, she said. Many of those people are not true drug addicts and are better served in a diversion system, she said.
That’s not the focus of drug court, she said.
“I only take the seriously drug-addicted people,” Stern said. “This is my choice.”
The local program is completely funded by grants, Kelly and Stern said. And while it lacks its own treatment center such as the Davidson County Drug Court in Nashville, the most important addition, Stern said, would be for local employers to offer graduates jobs.
“They don’t pass background checks with flying colors,” she said, but many have good character and just haven’t been given a chance to show it because of their addictions.
After five years operating, Stern said there’s always more that the program could build.
“My dream is to some day have a business run by our drug court,” Stern said.
Some ideas tossed around include a thrift store run by a graduate operating as a nonprofit that could offer work for current drug court participants.
Todd South covers courts, poverty, technology, military and veterans for the Times Free Press. He has worked at the paper since 2008 and previously covered crime and safety in Southeast Tennessee and North Georgia. Todd’s hometown is Dodge City, Kan. He served five years in the U.S. Marine Corps and deployed to Iraq before returning to school for his journalism degree from the University of Georgia. Todd previously worked at the Anniston (Ala.) Star. Contact ...