We arrived early and about 45 people were seated in the gallery, both offenders and their families. A few more came in after we did, and two people in handcuffs were escorted by a deputy to sit in the area where the jury would normally sit. Drug Court had begun.
Judge Phil Seay talked with people one at a time with the perfect balance of compassion and authority. He seemed to know personal details about every defendant. He asked one about his wife and another about how his kids were doing.
If the judge didn’t know something personal about the individual, he asked. Then he asked for a progress report from each of them. Judge Seay told me later that knowing these people personally is a high priority for him.
Although Judge Seay’s demeanor was casual and companionable, it was obvious that this courtroom was serious business. If anyone doubted that, they needed only to look at the bailiff, who was standing by the judge’s bench. He stood there with a pair of handcuffs in his hand until every person called had reported to the judge.
Then came the Drug Court Graduation. The anticipation in the courtroom was almost electric, and I wasn’t disappointed by what I heard and saw from each graduate. Six of the seven graduates were there, and as each name was called, their favorite song was played by Bluetooth as they walked up to the podium.
Graduates differed from one another in race, education, socio-economic level and their ability to talk about their experience with Drug Court. One thing they all had in common, however, was their success in completing a tough program, one that could change their lives forever.
The St. Clair County Drug Court was started in 2010, and it is a partnership between the District Attorney’s office and the Court. St. Clair was the third county to start a Drug Court, following closely behind Jefferson and Shelby Counties.
Since its initiation, St. Clair County has seen 181 defendants successfully complete the program, only 7 of whom have reoffended. And their phenomenal 95 percent success rate isn’t the only reason offenders are anxious to give it a try.
Because almost all drug charges are felonies, offenders can have a hard time reintegrating into society, especially when it comes to finding a decent job. Graduates of Drug Court have those felonies dismissed and are eligible to request having them expunged from their records. They have a fresh start…as though the offense never happened in the first place.
It’s not an easy program. It may require treatment or rehab before someone can start Drug Court. And if someone continues to offend after starting Drug Court, he or she can be ordered to treatment. It usually takes from 18 months to 3 and a half years to successfully complete Drug Court. And it’s a lot more than just “showing up.”
Participants must have regular drug tests, pay all fines and court charges and make restitution where required. Before they can graduate, they must have paid what they owed anywhere in Alabama. Also, there are graduated sanctions, from 24 hours in jail and up, for those who violate the rules of their agreement. If the individual violates enough times, he or she will face five years in prison.
How important is Drug Court? Well, the one graduate who wasn’t there wanted to be. However, she is battling advanced brain cancer, and the doctor wouldn’t let her leave the hospital to go, in spite of her protests. And the judges? Two of the three judges who preceded Judge Seay were in the audience. Not because they had to be there, but because being a part of changing lives is just that important.
As for Judge Seay himself, his success rate is impressive, but even more impressive is the hope he has for these people, whom most folks have given up on. I think when the Scripture talks about the governing authorities and how they should judge with fairness and wisdom, they give a pretty good description of Phil Seay.