The Key to Georgia Court Reform: Saving Addicts

Most Georgia residents will never step foot in a prison cell, and yet citizens pay the fiscal and physical consequences of an inefficient court system every year. As outlined in the Special Council on Criminal Justice Reform for Georgians 2011 Report, an unsustainable $1 billion annual criminal justice expenditure combined with a 30 percent re-incarceration rate, has forced lawmakers to consider reforming the penal system. The expansion of low-cost, effective accountability courts is the answer.

The linchpin of reform efforts lie within a subset of those courts, called “drug courts,” which facilitate judicial  “interventions” that protect and improve the community at large by aiding those who perform the bulk of offenses: repeat, non-violent substance abuse offenders who endure lifelong entrapment within the corrections system.

The corrections system is struggling to adequately supervise and process a growing population of more than 50,000 prisoners and an almost 155,000 probationary pool at an annual cost of $18,000 per prisoner, as stated in the Georgia Department Corrections 2010 Fiscal Year report.  An Office of the Governor press release published last February included concerns about population increase.

“That growth has taken us to a place where our budgets no longer reflect our priorities,” said Gov. Nathan Deal. “Between 1987 and 2008, national higher education spending increased 24 percent. In that same period corrections spending increased 137 percent. We now spend $3,800 a year for a K-12 student, $6,300 a year per university system college student and an overwhelming $18,000 a year to house an inmate in our state prisons.”

The result of such a financial burden has caused extended wait times for hearings, overcrowded prisons and fostered new incidences of criminal activity by re-cycling offenders back into Georgia neighborhoods with simply “$25, a travel kit, and a bus ticket,” said Georgia Chief Justice Carol Hunstein in the annual State of the Judiciary address last Wednesday.

In the address, Chief Justice Hunstein urged the implementation of recommendations put forth by the Council, a group including appointees from the House, Senate, Gubernatorial and Judicial branches. As noted in its 2011 report, the Georgia General Assembly gave birth to this special body via the passage of the HB 265 early last year to evaluate three areas: sentencing and prison admissions, prison length-of-stay and parole and community supervision. Increasing funding for accountability courts was pitched as a solution to the hemorrhaging of taxpayer dollars into a sub-par infrastructure that is simply not working., a news site covering Georgia legal issues, distributed a 15 statement survey to all 49 district attorneys, individuals responsible for persecuting offenders. Of the 20 who responded, “The state should expand the number of community-based treatment programs as alternatives to incarceration” elicited 80 percent agreement (reflects combined “agree” and “strongly agree” as responses).

The need to invest taxpayer dollars intelligently under an already stressed system is crucial.  According to a 2010 audit of drug courts in Georgia, drug courts received $9.5 million for treatment of non-violent repeat drug addict offenders, who for a 2005 cohort had a re-conviction rate of 7 percent compared to the 29 percent rate of the state prison cohort.

“Do we want to spend $18,000 per year to lock up every addict that can’t afford their drugs or do we want to spend $4000 to get the person off drugs and out of the criminal justice system permanently — it’s a no brainer,” said Fulton County Superior Court Chief Judge Doris Downs in an interview with David Lewis, an Atlanta radio host of WMLB-AM 1690.

Downs, a former prosecutor for 14 years and judge for almost 16 years, has given up her Tuesday nights and Wednesday mornings to turn addicts into law-abiding citizens for the last decade. Those who pass through her court may be in treatment for up to two years.  Requirements demanded of defendants include: maintaining adequate mental and physical health, acquiring a GED if without one, submitting to random drug screens every week, going to AA meetings and maintaining a job. If a defendant doesn’t pass a screen test or does very poorly in the program, he or she is put in jail and then put back into treatment.

The fractured corrections system in Georgia is reflective of what is going on at the national level. “Over all, there are now more people under “correctional supervision” in America—more than six million—than were in the Gulag Archipelago under Stalin at its height. That city of the confined and the controlled, Lockuptown, is now the second largest in the United States,” said New Yorker contributor Adam Gopnik in “The Caging of America.” Not only will the reform save thousands of dollars per prisoner, but also thousands of lives.


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image by: Emmanuel Huybrechts

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