After 32 years of practicing law, 15 years as a Superior Court judge, and 11 years as head of Drug Court, you wouldn’t blame Richard Sutton if he was a little jaded about the human potential for redemption.
But in 2003, Sutton took a chance on the drug addicts streaming through his criminal court day after day and established one of the few drug courts in existence in the state at that time.
The treatment and rehabilitation program, which serves the Tallapoosa Judicial Circuit (Polk and Haralson counties), is still going strong today.
And, after hundreds of hours spent sitting on cold metal chairs listening to drug addicts telling their stories in community rooms across the Circuit, Sutton still has nothing but respect for “my people,” as he describes the dozens of addicts he and his team have shepherded through Drug Court and into productive lives.
Sutton graduated from the University of Georgia Law School and was admitted to the bar in 1965. After a tour in the U.S. Army, he moved to Cedartown in 1968 and practiced law locally for 32 years.
In 2000, he was appointed to the Superior Court bench for the Tallapoosa Judicial Circuit.
Sutton says there were several incentives for starting a drug court:
More than 70 percent of all criminal cases were drug related in one way or another, a circumstance partially fueled by the fact that Polk and Haralson counties were and still are the epicenter of the meth drug scene in the state. And, he says, the state was spending $1 billion-plus on prison maintenance and upkeep of prisoners, many of them incarcerated on drug offenses.
“The drug that we have the most trouble with by far is methamphetamine. And we see a lot more of that related to crime than anything else,” Sutton aid. “Meth is so cheap, it is so addictive. These guys will tell you, ‘I did everything you can try, marijuana, cocaine, this, that, and the other, and when I hit meth I never wanted anything else and I wanted that all the time.’ It’s a grabber.”
There was not much of a model to follow when Sutton first established the court that is still in operation today. “Everybody probably runs theirs differently. We run what I call a “Chevrolet” drug court,” Sutton says. “The only thing you can expect in my drug court is that if you come up with a dirty screen, don’t show up for meetings, give any lip to my treatment people, I’m going to put you in jail. So far it has worked pretty well.”
They also know that he is on their side as long as they stay clean. He has married several drug court graduates and legitimized their children. He has hosted a Christmas dinner for graduates and current participants and their families every year for 11 years.
Graduates from drug court still come to visit Sutton and his long time drug court coordinator, Regina Roberts.
Roberts gets Mother’s Day cards from drug court graduates, sometimes with pictures of a new baby tucked inside that she displays on her office walls.
Sutton retired from the bench on January 1, 2015, but stayed with the drug court through a transitional period until July 1.
The drug court was working on two initiatives when Sutton left.
They started a speaking program where people in their last six months of after care visit schools, fraternal organizations, churches and talk about their experiences with drugs.
“We were also trying to put together a tutoring program for the GED. Our people do all they can, but they cannot even get a job interview without a diploma or a GED.”
With Sutton’s retirement, the management and care of the drug court is in the hands of coordinator Roberts and Superior Court Judge Meng Lim.
Judge Lim says he has no plans to change anything about the program.
“Judge Sutton has really done a wonderful job with the program itself and for our community, because drug-related crime affects pretty much our whole criminal justice system. This program will never be eradicated,” Lim said. “For the people in it, for the majority of them, it has really turned their lives around. It speaks a lot about Judge Sutton and the team for having such a good program, for it being the way it is.”