Fayette County has a deserved reputation of being tough on crime, and especially on drug offenses.
For many years, the county and its municipalities responded to drug crimes by locking up the offenders, but in 2007 Griffin Judicial Circuit Superior Court Judge Tommy Hankinson led Fayette County to try an alternative approach to sentencing non-violent drug offenders who were users and not dealers. Eight years later, Fayette’s Drug Court has been a catalyst in changing hundreds of lives for the better and in helping ease congestion in the local jail.
“It allows them to have a second chance,” says Drug Court Coordinator Donna Michel, who has been overseeing the program since its inception. “It’s been a great program. It’s been very successful.”
These days, Hankinson presides over Spalding County Drug Court, while Superior Court Judge Fletcher Sams serves as his counterpart in Fayette. Currently, Pike and Upson counties don’t have their own drug courts, but eligible offenders there are given the option to plug into either Spalding or Fayette.
When some convicted drug offenders would otherwise be facing prison sentences, eligible candidates are given the option to have their sentences reduced and even expunged entirely if they successfully complete the two-year Drug Court program. From a short-term perspective, it might be an easier option to just do the time in prison, because Drug Court is rigorous and demanding. However, its graduates say it is a life-changing two years that gives them real confidence and hope for their futures.
According to Michel, Drug Court participants have to call a special phone number every morning to see if they have been randomly selected to undergo a drug screening. They are required without fail to attend Alcoholics Anonymous or Narcotics Anonymous meetings three to four times a week, attend group counseling sessions and even family counseling session. Participants also have to attend Drug Court sessions in the court room, normally twice a month.
Oh, and if they are not employed full-time at a job or in school, they must make up that time in community service. All the while, each participant is required to pay $150 monthly toward Drug Court costs.
“It’s a very high commitment,” says Michel. “It’s not easy.”
During a recent drug court session, Judge Sams told one participant he was hearing good reports about her from members of the Drug Court Team. This young lady had been in other programs, but she relapsed each time.
“The other stuff didn’t work for you?” Sams asked.
“No,” she replied.
“What’s the difference?” he continued.
“I decided to grow up,” she said.
“Welcome to adulthood,” he responded
“Well, it kinda sucks,” she said, half-jokingly.
Accountability is the key to Drug Court, and that would be a job too much even for the capable Sams and Michel. The complete Drug Court Team includes representatives from the District Attorney’s Office, local treatment teams, the probation office, drug screening labs and the Clerk of Superior Court’s office as well as surveillance officers and case managers.
“We are very blessed with the team we have,” Michel says. “Your heart has to be in the right place to do this work. It’s a lot of emotional work.
“It’s a lot of good people,” Michel continued. “It takes the right judges, too. They’re good judges and they’re fair judges.”
During a recent Drug Court graduation, one man shared his story of having been incarcerated several times for illegal drug use before being picked up here in Fayette. He had become depressed and hopeless, but within his two years at drug court he was not only in solid recovery mode, but he is now on his way to becoming a certified counselor as well.
One by one, participants stand before Sams and give him an update of their progress in their own words. Sams has, of course, already been briefed by Drug Court Team members on their opinions of how the participant is doing.
One by one, Sams encourages participants who are doing well, and he gives warnings and perhaps sanctions to those who are not.
“Drug Court has changed my life,” one participant tells Sams.
“It’s been a big blessing, being a part of this,” says another participant.
Yet another participant tells Sams that she is grateful to be in the program, but she is finding things difficult, especially because working full-time and attending all of the accountability sessions is making family life more challenging.
“This is going to open up doors for you and your family, guaranteed,” Sams assures her.