Second drug court opens Tuesday in Hamilton County

Judge Alex McVeagh is seen here in his second-floor office inside the Hamilton County-Chattanooga Courts building. The Judge is starting a new drug court.

A second drug court is opening Tuesday in Hamilton County, and officials hope it will help a subsection of traditionally underserved criminal defendants struggling with addiction.

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 GED 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.

"The idea came from...seeing this population they weren't hitting in the felony drug court," said General Sessions Court Judge Alex McVeagh, who will head the new program Tuesday at 10:30 a.m.

McVeagh said he has one client so far, but with a committed team that contains prosecutors, public defenders, county probation officers, private attorneys and coordinators from the current program he hopes to expand that number to 30. The judge has been studying similar programs in Knoxville, Memphis and Nashville and said he's passionate about the issue: one of his cousins accidentally overdosed 10 years ago.

General Sessions Court is where the overwhelming majority of criminal cases begin in Hamilton County. About 50,000 cases pass through its five courtrooms every year, and many are resolved by way of diversion, probation or 11-month, 29-day sentences that defendants serve in local jails. With more serious charges, typically felonies such as murder, aggravated robbery or drug trafficking, a Sessions judge will determine if there's probable cause for the crime before sending it to a grand jury and then Criminal Court.

As a result of that system, some defendants return to Sessions Court multiple times on the same, more minor charges: Possession of a controlled substance or paraphernalia, disorderly conduct, theft, forgery and other fraudulent offenses.

But at the root of these crimes, said McVeagh and other legal officials, is a substance abuse or addiction struggle. Continuing to either sentence this population to short jail sentences or probation doesn't often address the root problem, officials say. Plus, the Hamilton County Jail and the Silverdale Detention Center are already regularly at capacity and have only so much money and resources to medically address drug withdrawal.

Sheriff Jim Hammond has said the county jail costs $87,000 to operate daily, and news accounts estimated that $525,000 would be spent this fiscal year on pharmaceuticals being distributed from Erlanger hospital to the downtown facility.

"I've noticed it since I was a prosecutor," said Public Defender Steve Smith, who used to work at the Hamilton County District Attorney's Office. "That population's always been there. This is just folks thinking about new ways of dealing with that problem."

Diverting people from the criminal justice system isn't a new idea. But recovery courts are still in their infancy. News accounts say the first Drug Court started in Florida's Miami-Dade County in 1989, and supporters laud the fact that participants excel compared to similar defendants who are either incarcerated or on a standard probation program.

"In lieu of incarceration, we make an effort to address the incarceration. Otherwise it kind of becomes cyclical," said Assistant District Attorney AnCharlene Davis, who works on Judge Greenholtz's Drug Court team. "Obviously some people choose to feed that addiction, but there are some who are very successful. [The program] addresses a lot of things in their life that maybe have gone unaddressed: Family, custody, other relationship issues."

Elaine Kelly, the Drug Court coordinator, said there are 62 active participants in the Criminal Court program. She said a small percentage of graduates reoffend within two years. Beyond that, the program doesn't track a graduate's progress.

Drug court critics say officials demand addicts completely abstain from drugs when studies show that doses of certain medicines can even out the highs and lows of withdrawal, particularly from opioids. Kelly said the program allows a person to use a previously prescribed medically assisted treatment as long as it's helping and the person isn't abusing it. Otherwise, officials adjust the person's treatment program, Kelly said. In November 2017, the program called on participants to stop smoking tobacco.

In Drug Court, members meet on a weekly basis to discuss each person's progress, setbacks or violations with medical and halfway house partners. McVeagh said he hopes to do the same in General Sessions Court, but less regularly until the program grows. Right now, the program isn't using county money and is relying on members who aren't being paid extra for their time. McVeagh said some officials are in the process of applying for federal grant money.

Like Greenholtz's program, McVeagh said the Sessions Drug Court will rely on a carrot-and-stick approach and have education requirements and random drug screenings. If defendants don't follow the rules, they could end up back in jail or possibly be kicked out.

"Elaine's folks have the highest need of treatment and have the highest risk of reoffending," he said. "I'm going to be dealing with different populations. We hope to catch them early on. Instead of waiting for them to get into that [higher risk] category, we hope to nip it in the bud a little bit earlier."

Contact staff writer Zack Peterson at [email protected] or 423-757-6347. Follow him on Twitter @zackpeterson918.