Sunday, January 29, 2006

Alabama Judge Promotes Drug Court

Hooray for Judge Pete Johnson!!

I have been following his work in Alabama since I became involved in the drug policy reform battle. This guy actually QUIT the Sentencing Commission because according to him they weren't doing anything that would make an actual difference. He even suggested making pot possession a non-jailable offense.

His email is included at the end of this article. If you are an Alabamian and you agree this is better than prison please write Judge Johnson and express your thanks for his work.

He deserves it.

Drug courts an alternative to reduce prison overcrowding
Sunday, January 29, 2006

We have a severe prison overcrowding problem in Alabama. The Alabama Sentencing Commission reports that 2,974 defendants sentenced for drug possession and possession of marijuana were serving time in Alabama prisons as of Dec. 30, 2005.

The Sentencing Commission urges that the Legislature pass sentencing guidelines based on Virginia's sentencing guidelines. The Governor's Task Force on Prison Overcrowding is calling for alternatives to prison for nonviolent offenders. A better alternative is to set up drug courts in every county.

In Alabama, we lock up people who are sick so we do not have room to lock up people who have hurt us. Every time a judge sends someone to prison, someone else gets out. We ought to give nonviolent offenders with drug problems a chance to change their lives before we lock them up.

There is an identifiable cycle of drug use and crime. In 1995, when I had been a district judge in Jefferson County for 11 years, I became concerned because I was seeing the same defendants coming through my court over and over, often on drug-related charges. We decided we should try to break the drug use and crime cycle. The police chiefs, the sheriff and the district attorney agreed to support the creation of a drug court, so in January 1996, we started one.

I have special experience in this area, having been a judge since 1984 and a lawyer in private practice and a deputy district attorney in Birmingham for more than nine years before that. Locking up drug addicts to punish them does not change them. They just keep coming back into the justice system. When we started drug court, we didn't know if we would be successful. I remember saying, "If we can get just one person to get off drugs, go to work and stay drug free, then we will all win."

Well, we have won more than 2,000 times to date.

Drug possession cases and forged prescriptions are eligible for drug court. Drug sales and drug trafficking cases are not eligible. To be eligible for drug court, a defendant must have no prior sale, distribution or trafficking cases. The defendant must have no history of violence, must have no pending cases and must not be on probation anywhere. A defendant must have no prior firearms convictions, and there cannot be any firearms connected with the arrest in the drug court case.

Drug court offers treatment and accountability rather than jail or probation. We require the offender to plead guilty, come back for regular reviews, submit to random drug tests, pay fees and court costs, perform 100 hours of volunteer service and remain drug and alcohol free for one year.

Nine years ago, Joseph was our first drug court graduate. Joseph had been addicted for 30 years. I met with Joseph last week to see how he was doing. Joseph has been drug free for 10 years and has continued to test drug free.

Here is what Joseph said to me: "Knowing someone cared enough not to send me to prison was an encouragement. Drug court gave me hope. Drug court gave me the option to become productive. I used drugs to live and lived to use drugs before drug court. Drug court provided me with the connections I needed to get drug free and stay drug free. Drug court helped me discover who I am. It led me to deal with my feelings, teaching me to live with life on life's terms. And drug court let me know if I didn't change, they offered me jail. Now I surrender to life on life's terms every morning. Drug court is where takers become givers. Drug court to me is a blessing."

We have the authority to handle drug cases in every county in drug court. On Dec. 5 of last year, I wrote every judge in the 49 counties in Alabama without a drug court and offered to help them start their own. I hope the Legislature will require every county in Alabama to start a drug court. Those citizens who have an addiction deserve a chance. If they don't change their lives, then they will be sentenced to prison. But if we can change them and make them live drug free, we all win.

Pete Johnson is a Jefferson County district judge.


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