Sandy Springs court starts program for defendants battling drug, alcohol and mental health problems

Sandy Spring is launching a plan to help defendants in municipal court with drug or alcohol addiction, or mental health issues.A new diversion program aims to help defendants of non-violent crimes and non-DUI cases.
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Sandy Spring is launching a plan to help defendants in municipal court with drug or alcohol addiction, or mental health issues.A new diversion program aims to help defendants of non-violent crimes and non-DUI cases.

Credit: File Photo

Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated the former title of Sandy Springs’ new solicitor. Steven Ellis formerly served as assistant solicitor general in Cobb County.

Sandy Springs has a plan to help defendants in Municipal Court with drug or alcohol addiction, or mental health issues.

During a May presentation to City Council, Sandy Springs Solicitor Steven Ellis estimated the new treatment program would cost the city a minimum of $90,000 annually with each participant costing an additional $2,000-$4,000.

Those costs are uncertain, according to the city, and could be less.

The city is working on two separate outpatient treatment programs, one for DUI cases and another for non-violent misdemeanors.

Municipal Court defendants accused of non-violent crimes such as disorderly conduct, probation violations, drug charges and other offenses could avoid jail time by entering the 12- to 24-month treatment program.

Defendants found guilty in DUI cases and determined to be eligible could start the treatment program after their court sentence is completed. After completing the program the conviction could be reversed in part or entirely from the record.

A specific program path would be tailored for each participant and is designed to include help for military veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, Ellis told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

The defendant would be assigned to an accountability team that includes the prosecutor, defense attorney, the judge and court staff and community leaders. The teams would consistently communicate with defendants and the professionals treating them to gauge improvement, Ellis said. The city is currently deciding on up to 40 candidates for the program, which would launch by the end of summer, he said.

Defendants would have to pay $700 to enter the program in addition to a $60 monthly fee, he said. During a call with the AJC last week, Ellis and attorney Dan Lee said defendants’ costs could be reduced by community service or financial assistance from nonprofits in the community.

“We think and hope on balance the costs will very minimal,” Ellis said of what defendants will pay.

Lee told City Council during the May meeting that the city has high medical costs for people in jail who shouldn’t be there, and instead, those people would benefit from a treatment program.

He didn’t provide the amount of medical costs for people in jail suffering from mental health or substance abuses issues during the meeting or to the AJC.

“We don’t have particular costs on the financial impact, but we recognize it’s one of few situations where we can do the right thing,” Lee told the AJC, adding that a primary goal of Council is to address recidivism.

Ellis, who became solicitor in March, brought the idea for the treatment program to Sandy Springs after leading separate programs for defendants of DUI and non-DUI cases in Cobb County, where he served as assistant solicitor general for nearly 10 years.

“People grappling with addiction or mental health issues, those issues are the catalyst for their criminal behavior,” Ellis said.

Ellis said Cobb had a nearly 80 percent success rate in its program for DUI offenders. The program for substance abuse and mental health problems had a 66 percent success rate in Cobb.