Georgia spends $1.2 billion a year housing 52,000 prison inmates. Of the 20,000 released each year, almost one-third will return within three years. Georgia Supreme Court Justice Michael Boggs characterized that as a terrible investment of tax dollars. As bad as these numbers sound, they could have been worse. Georgia’s prison population has only slightly increased over the past 10 years, in part due to a series of criminal justice reforms. One of the key components of these reforms was the expansion of accountability courts throughout the state focusing on rehabilitation and treatment as an alternative to incarceration.
I became the presiding judge of the Blue Ridge Judicial Circuit Drug Accountability Court 18 months ago. This is not my first experience with accountability courts. As solicitor general, I assisted in the formation of the DUI/Drug court in 2005 and a misdemeanor drug court in 2011. I remember the conversation with Judge C.J. Gober when he suggested starting a program in Cherokee County. He explained how the participants would receive counseling and treatment and we would have a team that would discuss how the participants were progressing twice a month. We would help them find jobs and suitable housing if needed, and they would be subjected to a significant amount of drug and alcohol testing. If they relapsed, they would receive a short jail sanction but we would continue to work with them and give them some additional treatment. This struck me as a little warm and fuzzy coming from Judge Gober. When I asked him what was so appealing about this program, he said, “I’ve been doing this a long time and I’m tired of seeing the same folks over and over again. Putting them in jail isn’t stopping them from drinking again once they get out. What we are doing isn’t working.”
After that conversation and lots of classes and training we created the 5th DUI court in the state (there are currently 23). Judge Ellen McElyea began our circuit’s felony drug court in 2013. At that time there were 3,100 participants in accountability courts statewide. Currently there are approximately 10,000 participants in a wider array of programs including veterans courts, mental heath courts as well as juvenile and family treatment courts.
A key component to Georgia’s drug court programs and a requirement to receive funds is data collection. Georgia’s combined accountability courts administered 631,349 drug tests in 2019, and over 94% of them were negative, and the percentage of positive tests declines further as they progress through the program. There were 1,500 graduates in 2019 and 72% of them were employed. Only 7% of accountability court graduates are rearrested within two years, and even participants who were ultimately terminated from a program still have a 10% lower recidivism rate than those who do not enter an accountability court program.
A study by the Carl Vinson Institute of government determined the total economic benefit for the 1,500 graduates, including fees paid by participants, income taxes paid to the state, cost savings from foster care and health care totaled $38 million vs. $32 million to fund accountability court programs. We have had three drug free babies born to participants in our program in the last 18 months, that saved $63,000 (hospital, medical, foster care, etc.) each. Not to mention the incalculable benefit to the child beginning its life free from drug dependency.
These numbers don’t give the full picture, to get that you have to hear from our participants and graduates and let them tell you their stories. How they have reunited with their families, the pride of being clean and sober for a year or longer, holding a steady job and getting a promotion. I had one participant this week say “I didn’t think I could be a good person because I’ve been in trouble all my life, but now I know I can.”
A side note on dealing with the Covid-19 crisis. We are maintaining our drug court operations through video conferencing. The counseling sessions, and court hearings and meetings by our drug court staff are being zoomed with relative success. Many participants are struggling because of loss of work and others need additional care that a session through a screen just cannot provide. That being said, this group is doing better than I would have expected given the extreme circumstances in which they find themselves. I also am keenly aware of the budget discussions going on at the Capitol currently based on a significant decline in tax revenue. I hope those decision makers realize the impact our accountability courts are making on people lives and the long term economic benefit to the state.