COLLETON COUNTY, SC (WSAV) – It is a second chance for people who want to work hard and change their lives for the better after being convicted of a crime.
That’s the goal of a 14th Circuit Court Solicitor’s office program that is expanding in South Carolina.
The Multidisciplinary Court program is an alternative to prison for non-violent offenders whose crimes are a result of chemical addiction or the effects of their military service, such as post-traumatic stress disorder.
The Solicitor’s Office has operated this program in Beaufort County since 2010 and now brings it to Colleton and Jasper counties after earning a three-year grant from the Bureau of Justice Assistance.
- That’s how many cases Solicitor’s office has taken in the last year that are connected to drugs and alcohol.
That’s almost half its total caseload, and why the Multi-Disciplinary Court program and its expansion into Colleton County are so important.
To do more than just put people behind bars, but give them an opportunity for a better life.
“You start learning there are people who embrace criminal behavior and those who struggle against it,” explains 14th Circuit Solicitor Duffie Stone. “and this program is crucial for those people who struggle whether it is mental health issues, drug addiction, alcohol addiction. Even those people so crucially important, the veterans.”
Brian was one of those people. he fell back in with his high school crowd of friends, and into alcohol and drug addiction, and crime.
He was arrested and facing jail time when he was offered a chance in the program instead.
“Finding yourself on the other side of the fence makes you look at things and wonder why you are in the situation you are in,” said Brian.
He said it wasn’t easy.
A demanding schedule which included daily check-in, morning duties, meetings, random drug screenings 3 times a week. Rewards if you are following the path, sanctions, including jail time, if you don’t.
“You come to a point in time when you realize the system is there to help you and everyone involved in the program wants you to succeed,” said Brian.
“A good person that makes bad decisions,” said Brian. “We all sometimes make bad decisions and for some folks, the consequences may be worse, and having a program in place that helps you see your mistakes and accept the mistakes you make on the other side you find your way through it and put it in your past is very helpful.”
The program lasts 12-18 months. Keeping people accountable the entire time until graduation.
“That is the best thing about this program is seeing a very broken and wounded and troubled individual walk out of graduation day with their head held high,” said Teresa Pye, Director of the Multidisciplinary Court Program. “Mothers get their children back, children get their parents back, sisters get their siblings back, South Carolina get their citizens back. It’s a win-win for everybody.”
Family Court Judge Gerald C. Smoak Jr. and Colleton County Probate Judge Ashley Amundson, both Walterboro residents, preside over Colleton County’s Multidisciplinary Court sessions. The first two defendants pleaded into the program in May.
The hope is to continue the program’s success. In Beaufort County, the graduation rate is more than 85%. more importantly, 2 years post-graduation, 75% of graduates don’t get rearrested.
“Some of them it means they get to remain alive, some of them get to remain free citizens,” said Pye. “It is truly a life-changing experience and that is expressed to us at graduation all the time. Without this program, I don’t know where I would be.”
A sentiment echoed by Brian himself.
“Did this program save your life?”
“It did,” said Brian. “Without it, I wouldn’t be here talking to you. I’m sure of that.”
“Where would you be?”
“I know of graduates having their first house, having first babies, opening businesses,” explains Pye. “Getting jobs they never dreamed of, and getting their children back from DSS. So it really is life-changing.”
Here’s how Multidisciplinary Court works:
Participants plead guilty to their offense in General Sessions Court, in front of a Circuit Court judge.
Their sentences are held in abeyance as they participate in the Multidisciplinary Court program. Although MDC is an alternative to prison, it is no free pass. Participants are carefully screened for eligibility and given an individualized plan that addresses the root of their criminal behavior.
Participants are required to:
• Undergo substance abuse and/or mental health treatment. This often includes group therapy.
• Submit to random drug testing and unscheduled home visits.
• Pay restitution and perform community service.
• Report progress and answer questions from a judge at regularly scheduled court sessions.
Participants who, in the judge’s estimation, fail to follow the program’s rules can be sent to the county detention center until their next court session. If a participant continues to be non-compliant or is rearrested, he or she is dropped from the program and the prison sentence is immediately imposed.
The hope is to continue to expand the program in the future to both Jasper and Hampton County.