History of the Hamilton County Drug Recovery Court

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The impact of substance abuse in today’s society is being felt on many levels and none more significantly than that of the criminal justice system.  Traditional methods of sentencing, fines and incarceration, often provide a short-term solution to longer-term issues. Incarcerating drug offenders will remove these offenders from our community, but it may not address the underlying issues needed to reduce drug-related crime.    

The cost of drug-related crime can be staggering.  The State’s budget dedicates about 10% of its expenditures to law, safety, and corrections, with a significant cost coming from the incarceration of offenders.  Additional cost can be measured in the birth of drug addicted babies, increased insurance premiums and unpaid child support.    

The concept of drug recovery courts started in 1989 in Miami, Florida.  This model sought to combine drug treatment with the structure and authority of the judge.  The purpose of these “problem solving courts” is to reduce recidivism and substance abuse among substance abusing offenders and to increase the offender’s likelihood of successful habilitation.  This latter goal is achieved through early, continuous, and intense judicially supervised treatment, mandatory periodic drug testing, community supervision, and use of appropriate sanctions and other rehabilitation services.  

In 2003, the Tennessee General Assembly passed the Drug Treatment Act of 2003, establishing a framework for the creation of drug courts in this State.  The legislature recognized the following goals:  


  1. To reduce the use of jail and prison beds and other correctional services by nonviolent chemically dependent offenders by diverting them into rehabilitative programs;  
  2. To reduce incidences of drug use and drug addiction among offenders;  
  3. To reduce crimes committed as a result of drug use and addiction;  
  4. To promote public safety through these reductions;  
  5. To increase the personal, familial and societal accountability of offenders; and
  6. To promote effective interaction and the use of resources among local criminal justice agencies and community agencies.  


About this same time, Judge Rebecca Stern and District Attorney Bill Cox began exploring the possibility of establishing a drug court here in Hamilton County to respond to the drug epidemic in this community.  Judge Stern recruited Dr. Elaine Kelly to serve as the coordinator, and, in 2004, Congressman Zach Wamp provided critical and essential help to secure initial funding for a drug court.    

After years of planning and training, the Hamilton County Drug Court opened its doors in 2005 to admit its first participants.  Over its life, and with leadership provided by Judge Stern and Dr. Kelly, the Drug Recovery Court has provided a new paradigm that has proven successful in reducing substance dependency and the criminal activity associated with it.  


This approach departs from the traditional practice by placing non-violent drug abusing offenders into intensive court-supervised drug treatment instead of jail, and it is governed by the research-based Ten Key Components established by the National Association of Drug Court Professionals.

The success of the Drug Recovery Court program is entirely attributable to  the commitment of its staff, as well as to the selfless support of its community partners, including District Attorney General Neal Pinkston; District Public Defender Steve Smith; the Chattanooga Police Department; Hamilton County Sheriff Jim Hammond; Parkridge Valley Hospital; and CADAS.  The program has also received the steady and critical support of Hamilton County government, including from the County Mayor, the County Commission, and through its Correctional Programs.

Since 2015, Judge Tom Greenholtz has continued the important work begun by Judge Stern.  The Drug Recovery Court takes seriously its role in the safety of our community and in the well-being of its people.  Please do not hesitate to contact us if we may answer any questions or be of any assistance.

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