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Q&A: Drug court judge says program helps those who want to quit

POSTED: May 1, 2008 5:00 a.m.
Robin Michener Nathan/The Times

Judge Jason Deal talks to a drug court participant on Friday afternoon. The drug court program is an intensive, two-year program that combines regular counseling and drug screens with strict supervision by a judge and sanctions that often include jail time. Those who successfully complete the program see their criminal charges dismissed.

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Superior Court Judge Jason Deal has presided over Hall County drug court since 2006. Deal has served on the Hall County Superior Court bench since 2005. He was previously district attorney and prior to that assistant district attorney in the Northeastern Judicial Circuit. Deal sat down with Times reporter Stephen Gurr to talk about the younger participants in drug court.

Question: Do you see many teenage participants?

Answer: There are some. Certainly the majority of those in drug court are younger. I have a couple of 17-year-olds. I have several that are 18 and 19.

Q: Do these younger participants come in with different attitudes than perhaps some of your older participants?

A: I think so. It’s hard to put your finger on the differences, but they’re young. Sometimes the young ones have a lot of potential because they have their whole life in front of them, and don’t have as many scars. But also, they don’t have the life experiences to see how bad addiction can be sometimes. So, it can be a blessing or a curse.

Q: Do the teens do as well in drug court as the older participants?

A: I think so. Sometimes it seems like you have a harder time getting through to them in the beginning. I think it’s just youth. They sometimes feel like they can get away with anything. But once they realize that this is serious, then we’ve had a lot of good success with them. Because they’re young, they’re capable of changing. They don’t have the years of addiction, which can be harder to overcome.

Q: What are some of the things you’ve learned as a drug court judge?

A: I guess the thing I have learned is that (drug offenders) can change. And, for the most part, people are inherently good; they just make mistakes. There are some folks who are just plain-out bad, and they need to go to prison. But, for the most part, the folks that I’ve seen who are addicted to drugs, they’ve made bad decisions, and they’ve gotten to the point where they want to do better. They want to change, but they don’t know how. And that’s what drug treatment’s all about, is to give them tools to change. ... Drug court is that structure that helps them get over that hump without using. It really just props them up and gives them the structure until they can get their roots of recovery down. It confines them in what they can do, but it gives them time to get their roots down, to give them a firm foundation so they can do it on their own. Sometimes they don’t like it, but it works.

Q: Why is drug court a good alternative to incarceration for drug
offenders?

A: Pretty much my career has been putting people in jail. And there’s a time when jail is appropriate. But when people participate in drug court, it’s a lot harder than going to jail. Someone who commits a felony drug possession may go to jail for 90 days and get out on probation and have drug testing quarterly. That just doesn’t compare to somebody who comes into drug court for two years and has extensive treatment, has treatment five days a week. They have drug testing four or five times a week, have to come to court once a week. I ask my participants oftentimes, do you have any advice for the folks sitting over in the jury box contemplating whether they want to go to drug court? And they’ll tell them: "If you’re not ready to quit using, don’t come to drug court, because you’re going to hate it. But if you’re ready to quit, this is the place to come."

Q: How do you see younger participants come in and how do you see them leave?

A: The kids I’ve seen coming in my program, coming in very young ... by the time they’ve made it through the program, a two-year program, you see that they’ve grown up a lot. They’ve gone from a kid that’s had no responsibility, who’s just running wild, basically, to somebody who’s held down a job for two years, who’s gone to all the meetings that were required, gone to drug testing. And they really have gone through sort of a boot camp for life, where they’ve learned to be responsible. Many of them were getting their GED while they were in the program. And they have a better outlook on life. They have a future that they didn’t have when they were stuck in the throes of addiction.



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