Drug Court growing rapidly in Shelby County

Shelby County’s endeavor into a drug court is a success on two fronts, local officials say &045;decreasing a jail population which is bursting at the seams and helping local users kick the habit.

County officials began a drug court last April with a county commission grant of $60,000 for the first six months and a guarantee of another $120,000 in 2003.

The program targets small-time drug offenders or those caught possessing drug paraphernalia,

not felons.

In drug court, intensive treatment, rather than incarceration is used to treat drug use, abuse and addiction.

Shelby County’s drug court, led by Judge Michael Joiner, started with only about a half

dozen local residents but had more than 80 on a recent week.

Luke Powell, the program’s coordinator, joined the drug court last spring.

Powell previously worked for Jefferson County’s drug court and has been a part of the University of Alabama’s TASC Force (Treatment Alternatives to Street Crime).

Powell said Shelby County’s drug court is growing by six to 10 offenders each week.

&uot;What has really impressed me is the team concept from this county,&uot; he said.

Powell said many people are involved with Shelby County’s version of the popular concept.

They include Judge Joiner, Sheriff’s Deputy Dennis Chamblee, Barry Page of the District Attorney’s office, public defender Barry Gordon, Debra Reeves from Shelby County Work Release and Dr. Bill Vance of the Shelby and Chilton County Mental Health Center.

On a typical court date, held every Friday, drug court participants learn if their urine samples are clean, and Powell reports their progress, whether

they are staying off drugs, to the judge.

The participants must speak to the judge about their current living environment, employment status and also inform him of any and all medication they are taking.

Many participants are rewarded for good behavior.

Some Shelby County businesses have donated goods and services. For example, Golden Rule Bar-B-Que in Calera, has given away several free meal certificates.

In fact, Powell said, one local dentist, Dr. James Alston of Columbiana, even performed dental work, valued at more than $5,000, for one drug court participant who was staying clean.

However, some who aren’t meeting expectations are handcuffed in court in front of other participants and taken to jail.

The participants are also, voluntarily, subjected to random searches of their homes, their workplaces and their vehicles at any time of day.

Chamblee, Powell said, keeps participants on their toes with those &uot;unique&uot; searches.

&uot;It’s not done in other counties like that. When they miss court, (Chamblee) is tracking them down. He provides us with immediate accountability,&uot; he said.

Chamblee said he is just following instructions.

He calls his job a mix of several occupations including &uot;a social worker, investigator, preacher, and friend.&uot;

&uot;I get to meet a lot of people. I go into their homes about once a week to look for drugs. I can search their vehicles, too … It puts it in the back of their mind that I always know what they are doing,&uot; he said.

Chamblee said drug court is relieving a jail situation in Shelby County that needs help.

The jail, which was built to hold about 75 inmates, is now overflowing with about 180 inmates.

Drug court, he said, also saves the district attorney from prosecuting some small-time drug offenders in the first place, keeping them out of the jail all together.

He said three to five inmates a week are being enrolled in drug court. This allows them to live in their own homes instead of remaining in the Shelby County Detention Center at taxpayer expense.

&uot;They can be on the outside working. Instead of causing us a burden, they are actually contributing to society,&uot; he said.

Chamblee said drug court does have one problem, though.

He said they will soon need another court chamber to handle the growth.

&uot;I’ve been in law enforcement for 16 years, and this is the most unique program I have ever seen,&uot; he said. &uot;It has really exploded in Shelby County. This past month, it’s standing room only.&uot;