Drug Court program cuts crime rate

Published 9:49 pm Friday, March 21, 2014

The Dallas County District Court is taking a more holistic approach to cracking down on drug-related offenses, resulting in an overall decrease in crime.

The court has greatly increased its Drug Court programs in recent years to reduce violent, drug-related crime. Friday marked the latest in the district court’s efforts, as Dallas County Court Services celebrated the opening of a new, larger facility.

The facility, on Voeglin Avenue, offers drug-testing services for court sentences and is beginning to accept contracts for other organizations. Dallas County Court Services was previously located in the basement of the courthouse.

Besides having a long-term affect, District Judge Bob Armstrong said the increase in drug- and alcohol-counseling programs is an effort to prevent overcrowding in jails.

“Jails have become a revolving door in a sense, where offenders will go in, do their time and then will be right back out on the streets doing the same thing,” Armstrong said. “We are looking for alternatives to prison and drug courts grew out of that issue.”

Often times, as a condition of sentencing or probation, low-risk offenders are ordered to complete counseling, Armstrong said. In other cases, offenders can voluntarily apply to the programs, and, in turn, charges are dropped.

Armstrong said the drug court program, which includes counseling, didn’t exist before he took the bench in 2005.

Initially it was an idea, with no financial support, Armstrong said, but gradually, the program secured grants and other means of funding. In April 2013, a legislative bill also enacted a five percent sales tax on liquor. The tax revenue is split between District Attorney Michael Jackson’s office — 25 percent — and the drug court — 75 percent. Armstrong said the tax was modeled after other similar measures enacted around Alabama.

After several years of Armstrong’s Drug Court program, Selma Chief of Police William Riley said overall violent crime has dropped noticeably. Riley didn’t cite drug court as a primary reason for the marked decrease, but said counseling programs help.

“When I first got to Selma in 2008, we started trying to figure out what was going on with some of the violent crimes and we realized that a lot of them were tied to drugs,” he said. “What people don’t understand is that drugs drive practically all the crime that we have.”

With addicts, who aren’t involved in violent crime, Riley said drug court is important in preventing criminal habits, but he struck a starkly different tone on repeat, violent offenders.

“For the offenders that commit violent drug related crimes, we are going to lock them up for the rest of their natural born lives to make sure they can never hurt anyone again,” he said.

With Armstrong’s drug court program expanding in size and scope, Armstrong said his decision to take a holistic approach shouldn’t be interpreted as being soft on crime, but rather to improve the quality of life in Selma.

“I live here; Selma is my home,” he said. “I know that being hard on crime sounds good, when you’re talking tough, but I really want to make Selma better and to do that you have to address the root cause.”