Drug court programs are the most successful criminal justice intervention in the country, according to the judge overseeing the program in Morgan County.

Of the participants who successfully finish drug court programs, 75% are arrest-free two years after completion, said Morgan County Circuit Judge Charles Elliott. And they’re 37% less likely to test positive for illegal substances three years after graduation, according to Elliott.

Elliott spoke Tuesday at the Mental Health Center of North Central Alabama’s second Opioid Summit. Just over 100 people registered for the event, including first responders and education, health care and law enforcement professionals.

“Without a doubt, it’s my favorite part of the job,” said Elliott, who took office in January. “For those in the (criminal justice) system with addiction and criminal issues, hopefully it’s a path to help break the chains of addiction and learn to live life crime-free and drug-free.”

Retired Morgan County Circuit Court Judge Glenn Thompson launched the Morgan County Drug Court in 2008 and oversaw it until his retirement in January.

According to Tammy Jolley, Morgan County’s Drug Court coordinator, about 280 people have graduated from the program. She said two participants are expected to graduate July 26, and another participant is to graduate in early August.

“I can’t wait to see what they do with their lives,” said Elliott, who was a Morgan County assistant district attorney for six years.

The minimum completion time for the program is about 15 months, Elliott said, with most of the participants completing it in about three years.

The program involves home visits, random drug testing, engaging in treatment and addressing medical and financial needs. Later phases including maintaining a recovery network and "pro-social" activity, so participants can realize “they can have fun and not be high,” Elliott said.

Drug Court is a voluntary Morgan County Community Corrections program. For individuals accepted into it who meet the requirements of the five-phase program and successfully complete it, “their case can ultimately be dismissed and they won’t have a felony record,” Elliott said. If not, “they go to prison,” he said.

Offenders who aren’t eligible for the program are those with sex or violent offenses or drug distribution charges, according to Elliott.

“The victim has to be OK with (the offender) getting into drug court,” Elliott said, adding that applications are reviewed by the program’s coordinator and the DA’s office.

Elliott said Morgan County’s program is a collaboration involving he and Jolley, prosecutors, defense attorneys, case managers and law enforcement officers, who conduct the home visits and car and personal searches.

“Law enforcement is the greatest contributor to an overall reduction in recidivism,” Elliott said. “They’re our eyes and ears on the ground.”

Opioid disorders increase

Also speaking at the summit was Debbi Sims, the adult treatment services coordinator with the Alabama Department of Mental Health’s Division of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services.

“We’re seeing a steady increase in opioid use disorders” based on ADMH admissions data, Sims said. For the first time ever, ADMH’s 2017 admissions for opioid use disorders exceeded those for alcohol use disorders, she said.

ADMH admissions statistics show that opioid use disorders increased from 4,672 in 2014 to 12,075 last year. The state’s drug overdose deaths involving opioids increased 11 percent from 2016 to 2017, data shows.

Sims said that Alabama ranks No. 1 in the country for painkiller prescribing, and it's estimated nearly 30,000 Alabamians over the age of 17 are dependent on heroin and prescription painkillers.

ADMH efforts include expanding its use of Medicated Assisted Treatment (MAT) by 47 percent since 2017. MAT is the use of FDA-approved medications, combined with counseling and behavioral therapies, in treating substance use disorders.

ADMH has created a one-stop shop website on opioids and established two media campaigns, “My Smart Dose” and “Courage for All.”

In a joint effort with the Alabama Department of Public Health, using State Opioid Response funding, ADMH has distributed more than 11,000 Narcan nasal spray two-dose kits to first responders in the state in an effort to reverse overdoses.

ADMH is also working with hospitals to provide detox services to the indigent.

Elliott has several long-term goals for Morgan County Drug Court.

“We’re trying to find avenues for folks to volunteer” and be able to give back to the community, he said. “We want people who graduate from the program to be an ambassador for the program.”

Elliott would like to launch a program similar to one in place in Jackson County that provides art classes to children whose parents are a part of the Jackson County Drug Court or Family Wellness Court Program. Elliott also wants to have drug testing available on weekends.

marian.accardi@decaturdaily.com or 256-340-2438. Twitter @DD_MAccardi.

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