The importance of ‘Drug Court’ can’t be measured

Anderson County Drug Court “returned” last Thursday night when it held its first graduation ceremony in two years.

Michael Shawn Phillips received his certificate for completing the course.

The Drug Court never went away, but the COVID-19 pandemic and resulting shutdown made things challenging.

Winnie Gadd, Drug Court coordinator, said the pandemic made a plethora of regulations and restrictions that tested the Drug Court.

“The network our people needed was tested,” Gadd said. “We’re a touchy-feely group. That’s part of the process.”

While new and unforeseen challenges came – challenges never anticipated when the Drug Court first began in 2007 – the program survived.

“This is the first time we’ve been able to come to together (to celebrate a graduation) in two years,” Gadd said. “But we still graduated 10 people from Drug Court (in that two-year span).”

It’s now up to Anderson County Criminal Court Judge Ryan Spitzer to carry the torch for Judge Don Elledge, who retired.

His first order of business last Thursday was to tell those attending the ceremony that the Drug Court had been recertified.

But, he noted, there is still work to be done.

Drug Court meets every Monday morning to discuss the state of the program and check on how participants are doing.

“We talk about all aspects of the program,” Spitzer said.

Spitzer said one of the things he wants to focus on is the way some inmates see the program.

“Some of the inmates think we’re just setting them up for failure,” Spitzer said. “That’s just not true. We’d rather see someone recover than send them to prison. This is a genuine recovery effort.”

He said the court has to make a concentrated to get the word out, and that people like Phillips — the success stories of the program — are helping do just that.

Spitzer said the Drug Court is also facing challenges getting the programs it needs, particularly since the Tennessee Legislature did not renew grants for ETHRA.

“ETHRA, for decades, has been central to recovery efforts statewide,” Spitzer said.

He said ETHRA has been a resource for the community corrections programs across the state. “That’s like super probation,” he said. “That’s the last step before prison.”

Spitzer also said he hopes to see Anderson County have a Drug Rehabilitation Court (DRC).

“Bigger cities have those. Knoxville, Memphis, Nashville, Chattanooga … I think Anderson County can have one as well,” he said.