ATLANTA -- Georgia Supreme Court Chief Justice Carol Hunstein last week urged state legislators to duplicate a special kind of court first set up in Georgia by Bibb County.
The drug court in Bibb County aims to rehabilitate rather than imprison certain non-violent, drug-addicted offenders. If Hunstein, Gov. Nathan Deal and a group of judicial experts win the debate, the state Legislature will fund more of these so-called “accountability courts.”
In 1994, the Georgia Legislature passed the “two-strikes, you’re out” law that mandated life without parole for a second conviction for certain violent crimes.
The very same year, a judge in Bibb County set the state’s first drug court, an intense intervention program that has taken people accused of lower-level crimes and broken criminal behavior.
Huntstein prefers the smaller recidivism numbers from Bibb and the many drug courts set up since then.
“The bottom line is,” she said in Wednesday’s State of the Judiciary address, “that all those mandatory minimum sentences and get-tough prison measures did little to reduce our three-year reconviction rate, which has held steady for the last decade at nearly 30 percent.
Get out of jail, not for free
“It’s harder to do this program than it ever would be to do five years probation,” said Superior Court Judge Hulane George, of her 18-to-24 month drug court in Baldwin County.
She watches closely.
Her drug court clients go through as many as three drug tests a week, at least monthly meetings with George herself, drug treatment with River Edge Behavioral Health Center, and even random job and home visits by officers to check that clients are where they should be.
If someone doesn’t pass a urine test, George can send them to spend time in jail.
If they keep clean, there’s recognition, applause, and ladies earn gifts from Bath and Body Works.
The point is to break the addiction, she said.
“Drug court can become like your family,” said George.
Entry requirements are broadly similar among drug courts. It’s generally offered only to people addicted to drugs who are first offenders on simple possession charges, usually as a pre-trial diversion. The participant has to be able to pay a fee -- in Bibb County, that’s $750 that gets cycled back into the drug court’s budget. Participants have to be able to get transportation to all their court dates, drug tests and treatment, and they have to be willing and ready for that treatment. Drug court graduates have their charges dropped.
More than once, George has received a greeting in public like the one she got at a restaurant the other day: “This woman jumped up and said ‘Judge George, you saved my life.’ ”
Freeing up the jail
About half of Georgia’s counties are served by one or more accountability courts, according to a 2011 survey by the Administrative Office of the Courts of Georgia. Most are drug courts and some also offer specialized programs to juveniles, veterans, hard core DUI offenders and offenders in drug-related child abuse or neglect cases. There also are mental health courts that focus on linking offenders with medication for things like bipolar disorder that can keep them from returning to jail. A handful of child support courts work to channel non-custodial parents into work instead of the lockup.
About 2,800 people statewide are under supervision by drug or mental health courts right now, according to the AOC, a 30 percent rise over a year. The drug court serving Bibb, Peach and Crawford counties can take about 180 people at a time; Baldwin’s court serves about 25.
Houston and Jones counties lack any accountability courts now, though judges in any county adjacent to Bibb, Peach or Crawford can ask to sentence offenders into the circuit’s drug court.
Adult felony drug court runs some $13.54 per person per day, counting drug tests, support staff, counselors and all other overhead, according to a 2010 audit by the state of Georgia. That’s about one-quarter the rate of a state prison stay. The audit also followed two groups of similar offenders in 2005 through drug court and prison. Of the drug court graduates, 7 percent had been reconvicted two years later. For similar former state prisoners, the re-offense rate was 29 percent.
Bibb County’s Mental Health Court offers a measure of arrests and jail time. According to 2012 statistics, 47 people have graduated from the program since it began in 2007. Before the program, together they had a lifetime total of 350 arrests. Since graduation, the whole group has racked up just 15 arrests.
Hunstein, praising the courts in her address, also pointed out another thing she likes. Accountability courts “free up judges whose dockets have been clogged with drug crimes to deal with other important criminal and civil cases, including very important business disputes.”
There’s the human side, too.
“Graduates each year get their lives back on track,” said Jacqueline Duncan, coordinator of Bibb’s drug court. They “reunite with their families and have gone on to become healthy and productive members of society.”
Court doesn’t come free
Retired Superior Court Judge Tommy Day Wilcox started Bibb’s drug court with a federal grant.
Since then, funding has been haphazard for many accountability courts. They depend on a varying mix of local, state and federal funds and participant fees. Baldwin County will start a mental health court in February, but only because of a $1.2 million federal grant.
“The impetus has usually come from a judge” to start Georgia’s existing accountability courts, Wilcox said.
That involves lining up support from the sheriff or police chief, the district attorney and criminal defense community, then figuring out where to get money.
Gov. Nathan Deal took a drug court graduate named Sarah to his State of the State address earlier this month, where he told her recovery story. He announced he wants to spend $10 million on accountability courts in the year starting in July.
The group of state legislators and judicial officials on the Special Council on Criminal Justice Reform for Georgians recommended in November 2011 that accountability courts be organized and expanded statewide.
Some legislation based on that report is being drafted, but it’s not clear if or how it will address accountability courts.
As for the budget, the state House and Senate have yet to approve, turn down or modify Deal’s request. Their decision will come before this year’s legislative session ends this spring.
To contact writer Maggie Lee, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.