Cherokee’s drug court hits one year mark
by Joshua Sharpe
February 07, 2014 04:00 AM | 2209 views | 0 0 comments | 20 20 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Superior Court Judge Ellen McElyea speaks with participants in the Cherokee County Drug Accountability Court on Thursday afternoon.
Superior Court Judge Ellen McElyea speaks with participants in the Cherokee County Drug Accountability Court on Thursday afternoon.
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Staff Attorney Lara Schuster, left, and Toni Burton of Canton Felony Probation are part of McElyea’s drug court program.
Staff Attorney Lara Schuster, left, and Toni Burton of Canton Felony Probation are part of McElyea’s drug court program.
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CANTON — In Cherokee County’s drug accountability court, even the smallest victories are worth a mention: regaining an old manual labor job, thinking of life in a positive light, or even just watching the world outside without the barrier of bars.

On Thursday afternoon, as the court led by Superior Court Judge Ellen McElyea quietly celebrated its first anniversary, participants of the 24-month program addressed the court and told of their path toward recovery so far.

One man talked about how it felt to watch the snow fall last week and, unlike the last time he saw snow, not to have to watch it on television in jail.

A woman told McElyea of how she was staying sober and the promise she felt in a job she had gotten at a plant nursery.

Another young man, who had been in the program about three weeks, told the judge how he was adjusting.

“It was hard at first,” he said. “It helps, going to counseling and what-not. I’m hanging in there. Things are good so far.”

These are the kind of stories McElyea and the others involved in the program hope to keep hearing as it moves into its second year.

“It helps them be a functioning part of society, rather than being plopped down in prison,” said the judge, who asked for participants’ identities to be protected. “We’re taking high-risk, high-needs individuals who would otherwise be in prison and trying to give them this structure. The prison system gives them structure, but it doesn’t really give them life skills.”

Since beginning last Feb. 6, the program has been offering counseling and treatment resources to about 40 participants, who previously showed signs of recurring drug issues and were recommended for enrollment by court system workers.

To aid the participants in recovery, the program offers drug treatment and resources for helping the offenders in many aspects of their personal lives, ranging from encouraging employment and education to general guidance on leading a sober life.

The program keeps a close watch on the participants, requiring them to call in daily to find out if they’ve been chosen for a random drug test and has them report weekly on the counseling sessions and 12-step meetings they’ve gone to. If they fail to meet the requirements, McElyea and her team discuss what path to take in getting them back on track.

One man, who police say had tampered with his ankle monitoring device and drank alcohol recently, was taken away from court Thursday to serve a brief time in jail. But for McElyea, the aim of the program is ultimately to keep people out from behind bars, even if it takes short-term punishments to accomplish that goal.

“The benefit to them is that rather than being in prison they’re in this structured program that really allows them to get more substance abuse treatment than they would in the state prison system,” she said. “Also, it allows them to stay in the community. The benefit to the taxpayers as a whole is that this program, while it is intensive, is cheaper than housing somebody in a prison per day.”

The program also rewards good behavior with incentives like drawings for gift cards and a general encouraging atmosphere. After the participants spoke to the judge Thursday, all the others clapped.

It may still be too soon to tell how effective the program will be, but so far, it looks as though it will have a positive impact on those involved, said Jonathan Kesler, the defense attorney for the drug court.

“We haven’t had anybody long enough to have graduated, but I think for the most part it’s going well,” Kesler said on a break in proceedings Thursday. “We’ve taken a lot of people that we’ve seen some significant changes with over the last year.”

Jennifer Williams, coordinator for the drug court, has also seen changes.

“I think it’s given a lot of inmates the opportunity to be successful and have the support they need for recovery,” she said. “We’ve seen a change where they stop blaming for where they are in their life and start taking responsibility and moving forward from that.”

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