BY KEN LITTLE
Attitudes toward Greene County Drug Court have changed for the better since the court's creation, Ed Kershaw told the Kiwanis Club of Greeneville Thursday.
Kershaw, a Greeneville lawyer who is a Republican candidate for district attorney of the Third Judicial District in 2014, addressed the Kiwanis Club at Greeneville Cumberland Presbyterian Church.
Kershaw is a long-time volunteer member of the Drug Court panel, which is led by General Sessions and Juvenile Court Judge Kenneth Bailey Jr.
In his talk, which focused on the evolution of Drug Court, Kershaw said great strides have been made in terms of public and governmental acceptance.
"It is amazing to me how far we've come," he said. "It is considered a good thing now."
Kershaw said the public's views about giving drug-addicted criminal defendants an option other than jail has shifted in recent years.
"If you go back to 2007, it wasn't so cool," he said. "In Greene County, the same persons get arrested over and over and over."
Drug Court gives participants a chance to change their lives and break the cycle, Kershaw said.
Individuals accepted into Drug Court get a reduced jail sentence, but the program is by no means easy, he pointed out.
Accountability is required of Drug Court participants.
To graduate, a minimum of 14 months in the program is required, with no failed drug tests the last six months prior to graduation, he said.
Other requirements include obtaining a high school diploma or GED, remaining employed and successfully completing all treatment and aftercare.
"Our success rate is about 50 percent," Kershaw said.
"About half of them stay sober. Of the half that does stay sober and complete the program, probably 20 percent mess up again."
Even a success rate of 30 percent is far better than recovery rates with drug-addicted individuals left to their own devices.
"That's a pretty good batting average," Kershaw said.
A 2011 state evaluation gave Greene County Drug Court highly favorable reviews, which are backed up by the low recidivism rate for program graduates.
More than 79 percent of Drug Court graduates do not appear in court again on charges related to drugs or alcohol, Judge Bailey recently said.
Kershaw and all other members of the local Drug Court panel are volunteers from different professional specialties.
Drug courts are six times more likely than jail or other programs to keep offenders in treatment until they overcome their addiction, studies have shown.
CHANGE IN ATTITUDE
Drug Court started out in 2004 with a focus on alcohol addiction, and those charged with driving under the influence.
As the percentage of drug-addicted defendants went up, the emphasis of the court changed, Kershaw said.
"We got criticized that we shouldn't help drug people," he said.
Police and prosecutors were among the skeptics.
"What's funny now is, police officers will come to a (Drug Court) graduation," Kershaw said. "It's a dramatic change from the way it was in 2007."
The number of Drug Court participants ranges from between 15 and 40, Kershaw said. There are currently about 15 people enrolled in Drug Court.
Six clean and sober Drug Court participants graduated in June from the program, which has become more flexible in handling cases where a relapse occurs, Kershaw said.
"Now we really tailor it more to people, and it is more forgiving," he said.
The attitude of victims of crime committed by drug-addicted defendants has also shifted, Kershaw said, although half of the victims still don't support defendants' being given a chance to try Drug Court in exchange for a reduced jail sentence.
HARD TO "GIVE UP'
The 12 volunteer members of Drug Court do all they can to help participants succeed, Kershaw said.
Those who join for the wrong reasons and don't finish the program can end up doing more jail time than their initial sentence.
"Many times, those 12 people have to give up on somebody," he said. "It's hard. You get invested in those people, and you hate giving up on people."
Kershaw took exception to "unsupported claims" by some organizations such as the Drug Policy Alliance that Drug Courts aren't effective.
"You have to give up 14 months of your life to the Drug Court program. Nobody in their right mind would do that if they didn't have a drug problem," he said.
Drug Court helps participants find steady work and reconnect with their family in addition to maintaining sobriety.
"It's a special thing Drug Court does," Kershaw said.
When Drug Court began, there were no outside funding sources. Gov. Bill Haslam recently allocated $50,000 for operation of the court in Greene County, Kershaw said.
"We have come a long way," he summed up.