The graduating class of four represents the third group to have completed the program since it started in August 2010, with a total of 14 participants who have now graduated.
The program, which is overseen by Walker County Circuit Judge Doug Farris, is a deferred prosecution plan implemented by Alabama Chief Justice Sue Bell Cobb that is accomplished through cooperation between Farris, the Walker County District Attorney’s Office and the Walker County Community Corrections Department.
Open to first-time, nonviolent drug offenders, it is rigorous in both its requirements for entry and its requirements for completion. The participants are required to enter a plea of guilty for entry into the program. This plea is held in suspension until either graduation or failure has taken place. Violations result in various sanctions, leading all the way up to failure. A person who fails is sent immediately to prison, while successful completion results in a dismissal of the charges from their records. Also, any fines that are owed to the county must be paid in full before graduation. Participants in the program are required to obtain their GEDs if they lack a high school diploma, find employment and pay court costs. If those requirements are not met, participants can not graduate. The participants are also required to find gainful employment.
Approximately $40,000 in restitution and court costs have been paid back to the victims and taxpayers of Walker County since the start of the program. With an estimated cost of $42,000 per year to house an inmate in an Alabama corrections facility, the completion of the program by the 14 graduates has saved taxpayers more than $591,000 — while the program itself comes at no cost to the taxpayers of the county.
“What the participants have done in turning around their lives is simply extraordinary,” Farris said. “Some of them have taken positive steps like completing their GEDs, enrolling in college, obtaining their drivers license and others have either gained custody of their children or gotten 50/50 custody rights. The procurement of employment is also a big step — some of these participants have never had a job or only held one for a brief amount of time. Gainful employment represents the ability to take care of themselves and gives them a sense of professional pride, which they may have never experienced before.”
Steve Shaver, the program’s coordinator who works with the participants on an individual basis, has also noticed a positive effect growing among the participants — support of each other — as veteran participants, and former graduates reach out to newer members to encourage, mentor and help their junior counterparts.
“We encourage that type of support when we see it,” Shaver said. “We witness the newer participants have a bonding group with each other, then those who have been in the program longer come to our weekly reviews and share their experiences and give pep talks. It’s good for both groups in that case and we hope it continues.”
Glenda Chumley, director of Walker County Community Corrections and Court Referrals, states the closeness of the program’s workers to the participants and the support provided are the key to its success.
“I’ve been doing court referrals for 15 years and I think the drug court program’s structure and the work we do with each member has made a big difference,” Chumley said. “The accountability that each participant undertakes through their work towards their individual goals make it very effective.”
District 5 Sen. Greg Reed spoke to the participants during the graduation ceremony, challenging both those still in the program and those who were graduating to continue to work toward their goals — whether those goals were graduation from the program or paving their way to a better life.
“We should all be thankful for second chances and to be given the opportunity to make the most of who we are,” Reed said. “We receive opportunities from society and from those who love and care about us — don’t ever forget what has transpired as a result of your commitment and the opportunity that others have given to you. This is not the end of the journey for you all. It may be more difficult of a task as you move forward because many of the parts of this program that were so supportive will no longer be there. But it is up to you to keep doing the things that are good in your life that brought you to this place. Lastly, you have the opportunity to share with others who might be or have been in a similar situation and are struggling with getting their life back on track your experience. You can say, ‘I was there, but now I am here. I understand all the difficulties, I recognized all the detractors and everything they were saying — but I made it through and you can, too.’”
The graduates received plaques with the order of dismissal of their drug charges, along with pins that read “Walker County: I Achieve”, symbolizing their completion of the program.
Also in attendance were District Attorney Bill Adair and members of his staff, along with Walker County Judges Jerry Selman, Hoyt Elliott, Henry Allred and Circuit Clerk Susan Odom.