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Commentary: Keeping them accountable
Accountability courts, like the pioneering ones in Hall County, can save both money and lives
Judge John E. Girardeau

Gov. Nathan Deal has proposed putting $10 million into Georgia's Accountability Courts next year. This is the best news for our criminal justice system in many years. Why would Gov. Deal want to do this and what are these courts? Why would I say it's such good news?

Gov. Deal wants to do this and it is good news because it will strengthen our criminal justice system while saving taxpayers' money. One in 13 Georgians is in prison, on probation or on parole. This is the highest rate of correctional control in the nation. It is now costing us $1.2 billion a year. That's billion, with a B!

I think most of us would be willing to spend even this staggering amount if we thought we must for our protection and safety. Prison is necessary for some people. But the fact is that not everyone who is in prison belongs there, and we are spending too much for what we are getting in return. There is a smarter, more effective and less expensive way than prison for some law breakers. That's because with much of the crime we have, drugs or alcohol play a major role. A person addicted to drugs is four times more likely to commit a violent crime and is seven times more likely to commit a property crime.

Approximately 60 percent of those arrested for most types of crimes test positive for illicit drugs at arrest. Nearly 80 percent of offenders abuse drugs or alcohol. You might legitimately ask: "But doesn't time in prison teach these people a lesson? Don't they learn that drug use will cause them to get in trouble?"

You might think so, but 29 percent of drug abusers commit a new crime (usually a drug-driven crime) within two years after release from prison and 60 to 80 percent do when the period is extended beyond two years. Approximately 95 percent return to drug abuse after release from prison. And then it starts all over again.

Twelve years ago, Hall County started a Drug Court. It was one of the first in the state and one of the early ones nationally. We started it here because we were seeing too many of the same people over and over again on our criminal dockets. We could tell that drug abuse was a major factor. We didn't know then the statistics I have cited, but we felt their impact and knew that there had to be a better way than just continuing to sentence drug addicted people to jail or prison. We came to understand that if we didn't begin to deal with the underlying causes of the crimes, we were going to continue to get the same unsuccessful results from our sentences.

A Drug Court is not actually a separate court, but is a judicially-supervised court docket that addresses drug addiction by striking a balance between the need to protect community safety and the need to improve public health and well-being; between the need for treatment on the one hand and the need to hold people accountable for their actions on the other.

Drug Courts in Hall County and, now, Dawson County put nonviolent drug-addicted offenders into drug treatment for a minimum of two years. They start by attending treatment six nights a week, being drug screened at least twice a week, being employed full-time, paying toward the cost of their treatment and meeting their obligations to the community and their families.

Compliance is assured by court attendance weekly in the beginning, phasing to once a month toward the end of their treatment program. Missed meetings, missed drug screens, dirty drug screens, bad attitudes and other program violations are sanctioned (punished) by the judge. Sanctions may range from pointed criticism (giving them what my mother would have called a "talking to") by the judge, to short periods of time in jail for more serious program violations such as missed or dirty drug screens. Good effort, program compliance and treatment progress bring words of praise from the judge. Hall county currently has 127 participants and 385 graduates. Dawson County has 58 participants and 47 graduates.

In the 20 years since the first Drug Court was created in Florida, they have been extensively studied and analyzed. There has been more research published on the effects of Drug Courts than on virtually all other criminal justice programs combined.

The verdict is in and it is that Drug Courts are better at reducing crime than prison, better than probation and better than treatment alone. In Georgia the two-year recidivism rate (the rate at which individuals re-offend) among Drug Court participants is currently 7 percent, compared with 15 percent for those on probation alone and 29 percent for drug-users who served prison time. Other studies nationally show similar results. Hall County's recidivism rate is 4.7 percent.

The success of Drug Courts has spawned similar courts addressing other justice system problems. These problem-solving courts are collectively called Accountability Courts. They earn their names because they hold their participants strictly accountable while addressing the root cause of the conduct that got them in trouble.

There are now DUI Courts addressing alcohol abuse; Family Drug Courts addressing parents' abuse or neglect of their children because of drug addiction; Mental Health Courts addressing the problems of those with mental illness trapped in the criminal justice system; Parental Accountability Courts addressing chronic failures to pay child support; and Veterans Treatment Courts which assist our returning veterans, who have gotten caught up in the criminal justice system, by providing the treatment necessary for them to adjust to civilian life and cope with combat-related stress.

All of these courts use a model similar to Drug Court.

With its Drug Court, Hall County had the first Accountability Court in this area. Now all counties in our immediate vicinity have at least a Drug Court. Hall tops the list in Accountability Courts with a Drug Court, a DUI Court, a Family Drug Court, a Mental Health Court (called H.E.L.P. Court), and a Parental Accountability Court.

The effectiveness of Drug Courts in reducing crime is now clear. But what about its relative cost? A national study by the Urban Institute found that for every $1 invested in Drug Court, taxpayers save as much as $3.36 in avoided criminal justice costs alone. When considering other cost offsets such as savings from reduced victimization and health care service utilization, studies have shown benefits range up to $12 for every $1 invested. One could reasonably expect similar savings by other Accountability Courts. Using the lower figure of $3.36 and applying it to Hall County's Accountability Courts' budget produces an estimated annual savings of $2,532,924 when compared to continuing to rely on jail, prison and probation alone.

Although cost savings are impressive, I think of lost opportunities. Drug Courts serve only about one-half of nonviolent, drug-addicted arrestees who are eligible for the program and less than 10 percent of arrestees who are at risk for drug or alcohol abuse and could benefit from court-supervised treatment. The challenge for the courts is to do more.

Crime prevention and cost savings are important, but they do not tell the whole story. There is hardly one among us who has not had a friend or family member affected by drug or alcohol abuse. In the years I presided over the Hall County Drug Court, I saw it save individuals from an early death because of drug addiction. I witnessed lives redeemed. I saw families restored. I saw people learn to get up in the morning and go to work, support their families, pay their bills, and become good tax-paying, and not tax-draining, citizens.

Gov. Deal has it right: Spend less, get more.

John E. Girardeau is a senior Superior Court judge in the Northeastern Judicial Circuit.

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