Covington District Attorney Walt Merrell released 2020 annual statistics for his office this week.
“I’m a numbers person,” said Merrell. “You can’t influence the numbers politically, so we track a lot of data.”
Merrell has published these annual type reports for almost his entire tenure as the district attorney.
First and foremost, the data shows that the District Attorney’s Office and Circuit Court eliminated 305 criminal cases in the 2020 COVID-hit year.
Merrell noted that he and his two full-time prosecutors, Chief Grace Jeter and ADA Nikki Stephens, handled all of these cases themselves. Of these cases, 213 were drug crimes, ranging from simply possessing a controlled substance to much more serious drug trafficking crimes.
District Attorney Walt Merrell stated, “I publish these statistics because I think it is important for the public to know what is going on in our office. We are here to serve the people of Covington County, and we have a responsibility to keep the community informed of our activities. It is also important for the public to see that criminal activity is ubiquitous in every community, including ours. Unfortunately for the good people in Covington County and my co-workers, these 305 cases are only the ones we have resolved this year – they do not represent the crimes that have been committed and are still pending. “
Of the 305 cases, 43.28% resulted in the accused being sent to prison. In addition, 35.08% of the cases received suspended sentences and 13.12% of the cases were cleared through the inclusion of defendants in pre-trial diversion programs such as the Drugs Court or the Veterans Court.
Circuit Court Judge Charles “Lex” Short presides over both Drugs and Veterans Tribunals, and Merrell expressed appreciation for “Judge Short’s willingness to work outside the box to help people do that Fix problem “.
Merrell has long been a very vocal advocate of drug rehabilitation and providing drug users with an opportunity to find sobriety. According to Merrell’s guidelines, all drug use, as opposed to selling or distributing drugs, requires participation in rehabilitation programs. Often, defendants have to attend rehab in a dormitory. In 2020, 57.38% of drug user accused had to complete a household rehab program. The rest of these drug user cases had to be treated on an outpatient basis through the Alabama Mental Health Department.
“Each defendant is assessed by someone in our office and a certified substance abuse advisor, and we try to find the best treatment for their specific problem,” noted Merrell.
Commenting on the 2020 case rulings, Merrell said, “I am very proud of my staff for their hard work in clearing cases despite the slowdown and closure of the court due to COVID-19. We said from the start that we would keep working, and so we did. 2020 certainly threw us many roadblocks as we went forward, but I work with a large group of people who rose to the challenges and kept the job done. “
COVID-19 posed many barriers to the judicial system and District Attorney’s staff in 2020 and continues to interfere with the normal operation of the courts. Many juries and grand jury trials across the state were canceled by order of the Alabama Supreme Court last year. It has created a backlog that the courts are likely to overcome for the future.
“There is always a lot to do and we look forward to it. We are confident that this pandemic will subside so we can resume our “full speed ahead” approach. By then, my co-workers and I have decided to plow forward as much as we can to postpone the cases – putting the worst of the worst in jail, praying drug users to discover what it means to gain hope through their time in rehab do and do everything we can to serve the victims and restore them to health. “