WALTERBORO, SC (September 1, 2022) – Talon Barnes was such a tough case, even the program director who approved him for a new Colleton County treatment program wasn’t sure it would be enough to keep him out of prison.
Never was Teresa Pye so happy to be proven wrong.
The 26-year-old Barnes made it through the 14th Circuit Solicitor’s Office Multidisciplinary Court program in less than a year – without failing a single drug test or facing a single disciplinary sanction. He also paid more than $1,500 in restitution, completed 25 hours of community service, remodeled his mother’s home, raised his credit score and got married.
And on Sept. 1, 2022, Barnes became the first graduate of the Colleton County MDC program, launched in summer 2021 thanks to a $740,000 federal grant from the Bureau of Justice Assistance.
“Let’s just say Talon was well-known to law enforcement in Colleton County,” Pye said with a smile. The director of the 14th Circuit Solicitor’s Office MDC program added, “For this program to be of value to the community, we need to take on challenging cases – the people who are genuinely struggling with addiction or PTSD, whose lives are really on the line. When Talon pled into MDC, I thought he would be a very steep challenge.
“But he really committed to the program and demonstrated the possibilities MDC offers to people who want to live a clean, lawful life.”
Known colloquially as “drug court,” the Multidisciplinary Court program also includes a tract for veterans. It is an alternative to prison for non-violent offenders whose crimes are a result of chemical addiction or the effects of military service, such as post-traumatic stress disorder.
Barnes’ drug of choice was methamphetamine. He paid for his addiction primarily by stealing. He racked up a string of charges between 2018 and 2021 that included grand larceny and breaking into a motor vehicle. In September 2021, he pleaded guilty to the charges and faced seven years in prison, unless he successfully completed the MDC program.
“The more and more charges I got, the more and more drugs I did,” Barnes said. “I thought there was no hope. I thought it was over with.”
A supportive family and MDC were the lifelines Barnes desperately needed.
“You go to prison, you might learn worse things than I was doing back then,” Barnes said. “This was my best option. … I quit hanging around the people I was hanging around with before, and my family has started to accept me again because I’m not doing drugs. I’ve got a lot of my family back.”
“If you stick with this program, it will work.”
Here’s how Multidisciplinary Court operates:
Participants plead guilty to their offense in General Sessions Court, in front of a Circuit Court judge. However, 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 treatment 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 re-arrested, he or she is dropped from the program and their prison sentence immediately imposed.
Family Court Judge Gerald C. Smoak Jr. and Colleton County Probate Judge Ceth Utsey, both Walterboro residents, preside over Colleton County’s Multidisciplinary Court sessions.
The Solicitor’s Office has operated this program in Beaufort County since 2010 but lacked the resources to replicate it in other circuit counties until winning the federal grant. The money allowed the Solicitor’s Office to hire in-house substance-abuse and mental-health counselors. The first Colleton County participants enrolled in May 2021.
“In the grant, we pledged to have at least 10 Colleton County defendants enrolled by the end of the first year,” Pye explained. “In fact, we currently have 25 Colleton County defendants in the program. We are very pleased by this growth and very gratified to be providing these services in a community that was in such need of them.”
The Solicitor’s Office estimates that alcoholism or drug addiction is at the root of about 2,500 of the charges it prosecutes each year across the five-county circuit – or about half of its caseload. This number includes drug offenses, as well as burglaries and other acts that further the drug trade or allow the offender to feed their addiction.