A group of Catoosa County officials is pushing to institute a drug court, which would focus more on habilitating non-violent offenders than sending them to prison.
Drug courts, or "accountability courts," are designed to keep tabs on offenders, counsel them, help them with their addictions, and hopefully help them kick the bad habits and become better contributors to society.
Catoosa County Sheriff Gary Sisk says he's long been in favor of a drug court for the Lookout Mountain Judicial Circuit (LMJC), which serves Catoosa, Walker, Dade, and Chattooga counties, but that the proposal didn't gain traction for a number of years due to resistance from the circuit's long-time chief judge, Jon "Bo" Wood, who is now retired.
One of the big steps in establishing a drug court is having the chief judge of the circuit sign off on it, which is something Sisk hopes to have happen now with Kristina Cook Graham at the helm.
"It's something we've continuously been stating that there's a need for," Sisk said. Accountability courts are proven to be successful. You can only do the same thing over and over again...You have to re-evaluate what we're doing and what we're trying to accomplish."
The LMJC is one of that last remaining circuits in the state to not offer such a court.
"It says a lot when LMJC is one of only two circuits in the state that doesn't have accountability courts," Sisk said. "We need some different types of court procedures that we can utilize. We've sought federal grant money in the past, but we needed particular players at the table. ... Part of it was that our chief Superior Court judge needed to sign off on it, so we were beating our heads against the wall there."
Sisk says other players in the court system seem to be on board with the idea such as District Attorney Herbert E. "Buzz" Franklin, lead Public Defender David Dunn, and even heads of other law enforcement agencies.
"It is long overdue," Dunn said. "Most thoughtful people have long ago recognized that substance abuse is a medical problem rather than a crime problem. Trying to solve that problem by locking people in prison is not only doomed for failure, but causes tremendous harm to society as a whole. Drug court is an attempt to bring some sanity into our efforts to deal with this recognition."
Sisk says the majority of people in his Catoosa County jail at any given time are there due to a probation issue or a non-violent drug crime.
"Over 50-percent of my jail is sitting here on probation violation, which there's no bond for 60 to 90 days. ... In that time people lose jobs, homes, stuff like that, and then they fall right back into the cycle. The system we have now is continuously setting people up to fail. I'm all for being tough on crime. I have children, but I don't go right out and punish them and lock them away without showing and teaching them the right way to do things. I want to make them a better person and member of society. Save the prison for violent offenders and those who don't have any interest in changing."
Ringgold Police Chief Dan Bilbrey says he backs the proposal whole-heartedly.
"I personally am in favor of a drug court here in our judicial circuit of Catoosa County," Bilbrey said. "The reality is that we see an overwhelming number of people here in the U.S. who are incarcerated. There are a number of people incarcerated on non-violent drug issues that a drug court could manage and offer an alternative to per se incarceration and probation. The drug court could offer more to address the issues of rehabilitation, supervision, and in my opinion, recidivism rates."
Although he had to go to Whitfield County to experience it in the Conasauga Drug Court, Tunnel Hill resident Zeke Brown says the two-year program he's currently taking part in has saved his life.
"All I have are good things to say about it," Brown said. "I got caught up with drugs and it was either go to prison for 10 years, or go through this program. I've been in prison before and it didn't really help me. This program changed my addictive mind. It makes you a productive member of society and they help you get your life back if you really want it."
Brown says his program has five different phases, and that he's scheduled to complete phase five of his journey and graduate in the spring. Throughout the program, Brown has had to go to therapy and classes about addiction, drug test regularly, gain and keep employment, all of which has been overseen by the drug court. In cases where offenders slip up, they can be punished or sent to jail if they aren't complying with the requirements of the program.
"It helps you when you're stuck in a ditch. ... It's hard to get out when you need help," Brown said. "The court helped me get off drugs. It helps with your thinking, and they counsel you."
Brown says he's a different person than the man who first entered the program.
"I got my driver's license back, got to where I can see my kids again. I've been at my job for a year and a half now, and am even a lead man on our second shift," Brown said. "It's been not only good for me, but my whole family has benefitted from me getting better. They're pretty proud of me. It'll be two years in May. ... They give you the guidance and the tools to get your life back."
For now, Sisk says, he's doing as much as he can to get the ball rolling again on bringing the court here.
"Hopefully in a year or two we can get something in place here," Sisk said. "A lot of it depends on how we want to develop it. We have instituted a number of programs at the jail since I took office. ... If it saves one life, turns one person around, then that's one that wasn't getting saved or turned around before. This could really make an impact in our community."