When it comes time to try a case in court, Prosecuting Attorney Eugene Simmons has to consider many things – the severity of the offense, the frequency of offenses and what is best for the offender.
With drug charges, it is no longer acceptable to just send the offender to jail and wish them luck. There are now many programs that provide assistance to drug offenders to help them kick the habit and become law abiding citizens.
One program in particular – Drug Court – gives the individual a chance to rehabilitate, serve the community and get back on their feet.
“Before, the goal was to penalize the individual,” Simmons said. “Over recent years, we’ve taken the approach to try to correct the individual themselves. In other words, try to get them on some sort of rehab program or something like that, particularly in relation to Drug Court.”
Simmons looks at each case to see which individual is best suited for Drug Court, rather than jail.
“If it’s a long time drug user and there’s no hope, we don’t mind sending them to the penitentiary just to get them off the street, but if there’s a possibility of rehab, we try to work with them and try to make them a productive citizen,” Simmons said. “You can almost tell the first time you come in contact with them whether they’re going to make it or not.”
When a drug offender enters court, they have the opportunity to apply for Drug Court. The application is reviewed and Simmons makes the final decision as to whether the individual is approved.
“If somebody is charged with a felony, or even in some cases, misdemeanors, that are drug related, they have an opportunity to apply for Drug Court,” Simmons said. “If they’re charged with a felony, they enter a plea to the felony, but they’re not adjudicated at that particular time. The judge will hold it and let them go into Drug Court. It is a four phase type thing. It probably lasts about a year and a half, depending on the individual.”
While it is not “hard time,” individuals who go through Drug Court are not just slapped on the wrist. They follow a rigorous schedule and are tested for drugs throughout their time.
With all the requirements involved, some offenders may think jail time is an easier sentence, but there is an incentive at the end of Drug Court.
“They’re tested randomly – maybe twice a week – and they have to attend classes,” Simmons said. “If they complete the program, then I will reduce the felony down to a misdemeanor or in some cases, if they’ve done really well, I have the authority to dismiss the charge completely.”
The system may not be perfect – some Drug Court attendees relapse and return to court – but Simmons has seen Drug Court make a real difference in several lives in Pocahontas County.
“We’ve had cases that just really blow your mind how these people – after they get straightened out – it usually takes three or four months before you know whether they’re going to make it or not – then they get the extra year – it’s really something special,” he said.
Drugs are a big issue statewide, and Simmons said it can be difficult to make a dent in the issue.
“Sometimes I think you can never really stop it,” he said. “It’s tough in a way because right now, in our district, we find out that the drugs are coming in from all over. We seem, in West Virginia, to have an appetite for drugs, and I guess it’s because there’s a lack of jobs, lack of entertainment and that sort of thing, and people go to drugs to replace the things they don’t get.
“There’s so many out there that you’re not going to help,” he continued. “They die every day. We’ve lost some really good ones here in Pocahontas County that did drugs for the first time.”
While it may seem like a never ending problem, the success stories are what keep Simmons going because they are proof that Drug Court and rehabilitation can and is working.
“If we can get them into Drug Court, we can help some,” he continued. “We’ve had probably twelve or fifteen that we put through Drug Court. Ninety percent of them are still okay, which helps.”
Other than a couple of relapses, Simmons said the success of the program has been “unreal.”
Suzanne Stewart may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org