House Bill 1176, which was passed and signed by Gov. Nathan Deal earlier this year, establishes standards for “accountability” courts, which put nonviolent criminals into rehabilitation programs.
Cobb Juvenile Court Judge Juanita Stedman, who formed the county Family Dependency Treatment Court in 2005, said the law will provide partial funding for the county’s drug courts and may allow Cobb to create a mental health court for nonviolent offenders.
Stedman said the program requires offenders to be screened for drugs, see a judge weekly, maintain a job and get an education, if they haven’t already. If they don’t follow the rules, they are sent to jail.
“There is no better use of money for folks who are drug addicts and are not violent criminals than accountability courts,” she said.
Family Dependency Treatment Court, which is for families of parents who are accused of depriving their children because of substance abuse, currently has a caseload involving 45 mothers, 15 fathers and more than 90 children. That program takes three years to complete.
The Juvenile Drug Treatment Court, which Stedman also oversees, is for juvenile offenders who are either using drugs and alcohol or accused of crimes involving drugs. The one- to two-year program currently has 70 cases.
In addition to Stedman’s courts, Superior Court Judge George Kreeger oversees an adult drug court in Cobb, while State Court Judge Melodie Clayton oversees DUI court.
Stedman said accountability courts are more successful in breaking the cycle of addiction than sending an offender to prison is.
“Without it, it’s very likely we would see (an offender’s) kids in state court,” she said.
The program also saves money. Placing a child in the Youth Detention Center costs taxpayers around $200 a day, while an adult costs $40 a day to be jailed. But Mea Fagiola, Cobb judicial program administrator, said the drug courts only cost between $1,500-$3,000 for treatment per child, costs that are covered with fees offenders pay. She said the program costs the county no additional money because it reallocated resources when the drug courts were created.
“We basically are just utilizing people we’ve always had in the courts,” she said. “We never went to commissioners and asked for more money.”
The legislation, which was co-sponsored by state Rep. Rich Golick (R-Smyrna), was based on the recommendations of a Special Council on Criminal Justice Reform for Georgians, which was created in 2011 out of concerns that if existing sentences and corrections were to remain in place, the state would need to spend $264 million to expand prison capacity by 2016. The study found that 5,000 “lower risk” drug and property offenders were sent to prison in 2010, making up 25 percent of all admissions.
Acworth Police Chief Wayne Dennard said accountability courts have been effective in his city.
They’re tailoring rehabilitation to curtail recidivism,” Dennard said. “I think there is value in that. Here in Acworth, we’ve seen positive effects (of drug court). I think that expanding that type of program will curtail recidivism and save millions of dollars.”
Cobb County Sheriff Neil Warren said House Bill 1176 is among the more significant changes ever to Georgia’s criminal justice system. But he worries about whether the savings to state government might just mean passing the buck on to the counties.
“What has worked well for many years may not be the best framework for today or the future,” Warren said. “However, my concern is that such drastic changes were adopted without appropriate consideration being given to the effect on local government … Any change of this nature can absolutely place a greater burden on the local taxpayer.”
While the county has never done a formal study on how well the drug courts work, Fagiola said officials see the difference.
“We do have families that opt out of the drug court,” she said. “When we look at those kids, they have a much higher tendency to be placed in the Department of Juvenile Justice or have long-term placement.”