Hamilton County Drug Court receives $500,000 federal grant, hopes to put it toward new program

Judge Alex McVeagh is seen here in his second-floor office inside the Hamilton County-Chattanooga Courts building.

A second drug court program in Hamilton County will have an easier time getting off the ground after receiving a $500,000 federal grant.

Commissioners voted 8-0 Wednesday to approve a U.S. Department of Justice grant aimed at expanding recovery courts and curbing opioid use. Drug Court officials who applied for the grant earlier this year say the money will allow a smaller, pilot program that started in September to help more people than it originally expected. Hamilton County's program was the sole jurisdiction in Tennessee to receive this particular grant, according to a news release.

"We'll be able to grow the program from 30 to 50," said Hamilton County General Sessions Court Judge Alex McVeagh, who is overseeing the new program. "With the increase in participants, a lot of that grant money will pay for their health care, any halfway houses, it'll be going to drug testing. We'll also be able to hire a full-time court case manager."

McVeagh said the Sessions Court program is presently working with seven people and will establish a set time to meet every week.

Since 2005, defendants with multiple, non-violent felony convictions and high needs have had the option of going through a rehabilitative drug program in Hamilton County Criminal Court. The program, now led by Judge Tom Greenholtz, asks defendants to abstain from drugs, participate in community service, gain employment and earn their GEDs, if they haven't already. In exchange for following program rules, defendants can avoid incarceration and hopefully achieve sobriety.

But defendants in Hamilton County's lower courts with a history of misdemeanor arrests that can be traced back to addiction have had a less clear path. They've needed intervention but either didn't have a severe enough record to get into Drug Court or, in some cases, were pleading guilty to felonies to qualify. McVeagh, who was appointed to the bench in spring 2017, said he began speaking with Greenholtz and Elaine Kelly, the program's coordinator, about starting a second program in the lower courts to help that group before they entered a cycle of incarceration in the justice system.

"Working with judges Greenholtz and Stern in Drug Recovery Court over the years has proven that addicts can recover," Kelly said in a statement. "With judicial supervision, structure and accountability, lives are changing families are being reunited. Expanding this program into Sessions Court under the leadership of Judge McVeagh allows us to serve individuals who suffer from addiction before they become repeat felony offenders."

Contact staff writer Zack Peterson at zpeterson@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6347. Follow him on Twitter @zackpeterson918.