Drug court: Saving money, saving lives

Offenders get help, not prison, from judges

Editor's Note: This is the first in a five-part series on accountability courts — intensive programs lasting a year or more in which defendants must prove that they can abide by the law.

An Alpharetta mom so amped up on meth she spent eight hours cleaning her oven with Q-tips. Now drug-free: 311 days.

A Roswell college student with a 3.7 grade-point average blows her tuition on drugs and is arrested for forging prescriptions. Drug-free: 390 days.

An Atlanta man so fixated on his next hit that he “literally walked over a dead body one day to get to the dope man’s porch.” Drug- free: 290 days.

Seventeen people graduate this winter day from Fulton County’s drug court. Seventeen stories, all starting with the same desperate addiction, all ending with the same luminous redemption. Superior Court Judge Doris Downs does not pronounce sentence on the 17. Instead, she announces the exact number of days each defendant has been clean. By the ceremony’s end, many in the room have wept.

People often weep in court. But this is drug court, and here they cry for different reasons. People in court may get life in prison; people in drug court can get life, too — a life of liberty to lead as they choose. If they make it through the intense program, they know they can make it through almost anything.

Drug courts, part of a larger program known as “accountability courts,” are not universally accepted by the state’s judges and prosecutors. But they are central to a new approach to justice in Georgia.

The state’s typical response to crime — all sorts of crime, from stealing a few hundred dollars to nonviolent drug offenses to armed robbery and homicide — has been to lock people up. While effective in taking people off the streets, this approach has had two obvious consequences: The first is a $1 billion annual corrections budget that is growing by the year; the second is that minor criminals often leave prison to become major criminals, a greater danger to the community than when they went in.

The state now has 101 accountability courts, many of which require defendants to work, stay sober and get treatment, and Gov. Nathan Deal is proposing in this year’s budget to quintuple the funding for them to $10 million.

Deal is a former prosecutor and judge. His son, Superior Court Judge Jason Deal, who swore-in his father as governor, is known to hand out stiff sentences to drug dealers. But Judge Deal also presides over accountability courts in Hall and Dawson counties, and he’s a believer.

“Those who get it, those who buy into what we’re doing, they’re changed people when they complete drug court,” Jason Deal said. “Drug court is the best part of what I do as a judge. It’s by far the most rewarding.”

A 2010 state audit found that 29 percent of state prison inmates with substance-abuse problems committed another crime within two years of release, compared to only 7 percent of drug court graduates. Drug courts also operate at a fraction of the cost — about $20 a day, compared to $51 a day for a state prison bed. The audit estimated that sending offenders through drug court saved the state $14 million in 2009.

‘Not hug-a-thug’

Jeffrey Bagley, chief judge of the Forsyth County Superior Court, has seen 175 defendants graduate from his drug court.

“Most of them say it is the most difficult thing they have had to do in their lives,” Bagley said.

The program teaches offenders responsibility, how to stand on their own two feet, how to pay taxes and be a good citizen, he said. “All of these things are conservative principles. We do not want them to be a drain on the government.”

In separate interviews, Judge Deal and Judge Bagley said the same thing about drug court: “This is not hug-a-thug.” Deal added, “This is about encouraging positive behavior and discouraging negative behavior.”

Deal said his drug court participants “often think of themselves as bad people and society often looks at them that way. Really, they’re just some people who made bad decisions, and those bad decisions got compounded and repeated when they were on drugs.”

Accountability courts use a carrot-and-stick approach to try to modify an addict’s behavior. Most offenders enter as a way to stay out of prison and, if they graduate, get their charges dismissed.

But they quickly learn that failed drug tests and missed court dates mean sanctions, such as mandatory community service or a few days in the county jail. More severe punishment is often handed out to those who refuse to own up to their relapses or try to cover them up. And those who continue to use drugs, or get arrested for serious offenses or flee may be terminated from drug court altogether and given a traditional prison sentence.

But more stick with it than leave. The retention rate for those who entered Georgia’s drug courts was 77.6 percent, said the Administrative Office of the Courts, citing a 2010 survey.

Bob King, who coordinates Dawson’s program, said early relapses are not only tolerated but anticipated. Otherwise, he said, the court isn’t targeting the right audience.

“These are addicts whose lives have been filled with chaos and crisis, people who have habitually lied to others and to themselves,” he said. “Getting used to a calmer, clean and sober lifestyle can be hard for them.”

One of the most rewarding parts about drug court is witnessing a defendant’s epiphany, he said. “Watching someone’s personality change over time to be of service to others and to their higher power, if they so choose, is definitely a miracle — and that’s beyond staying away from a drink or a drug.”

‘A thinking problem’

Stefano Leardini, one of the recent Fulton graduates, was facing up to 10 years in prison when he entered drug court. He had been using cocaine for years, living on the streets and stealing to get money for dope. There were days he used his martial arts prowess in fights staged by his dealer in exchange for drugs.

Leardini had previously made it through four substance abuse programs, only to return to coke. He also relapsed twice in Fulton’s drug court during his first year in the program.

“I finally realized I didn’t have a drug problem — I had a thinking problem,” he said. “I also thought: I’m not married. I have no kids. I had no job. I had no car. I thought about everything I’d lost, and I turned back to God and found my cure for addiction.”

Leardini is now a chef at a Buckhead pizzeria and has been drug-free for 1 1/2 years.

Leardini’s fellow graduates are black, white, 20-something, middle-aged, residents of the suburbs, denizens of the streets. The stories of all 17 were read at the graduation ceremony.

One graduate was a nationally ranked hurdler who was offered a college track scholarship. But he embarked on a 30-year addiction to drugs and booze — habits that spanned a stint in the Army, good jobs, marriage and fatherhood. But dope and alcohol were the only real constants in his life: Ultimately, they caused the disintegration of his family. He wound up homeless and eating out of Dumpsters.

Instead of prison, the man chose drug court, found both a job and Narcotics Anonymous. Now he works full time and is reunited with his family.

Another graduate’s story: “Selfish is what I have been my whole life. I didn’t care about my family or myself. I always thought I was smarter and slicker than everybody else. I saw terrible things take place and I felt nothing. I literally walked over a dead body one day to get to the dope man’s porch, and all I could think of was how I was going to feel once I got a chance to use.”

‘Trust, but verify’

The nation’s first drug court was established in Florida in 1989, and there are now more than 2,500 operating nationwide.

Georgia’s first drug court opened in Macon in 1994; there are now 35 statewide that serve adults facing felony drug charges, according to the state Administrative Office of the Courts.

There’s also room for growth, the 2010 state audit found. It identified 4,000 state prisoners who met the eligibility requirements for drug courts and noted 2,400 of them lived in areas where drug courts exist. But many of these courts did not have the capacity to accommodate those inmates.

The audit also found that four metro counties — Fulton, DeKalb, Gwinnett and Cobb — could expand their drug courts to serve more people. It found that two counties — Douglas and Floyd — that do not have a drug court could benefit from one.

Douglas County District Attorney David McDade said his county does not have an adult drug court because it doesn’t have the resources to run one. He also expressed some skepticism of reports of how successful drug courts have been. “I’ve always said, ‘Trust, but verify,’” the prosecutor said.

Floyd County Chief Superior Court Judge Walter Matthews is more explicit about his concerns.

“I’ve always been worried of the aspect of a judge sitting in a courtroom patting people on the head and giving them trinkets and gifts because they went a week without using methamphetamine or cocaine,” he said. “Drug court is more suited for a counselor than a judge. I have a problem with that.”

Drug court participants are expected to relapse and can stick with the program even if they are caught using drugs, Matthews added. “So how am I supposed to feel about treating a person who’s not in drug court, but on probation, and slips up and uses cocaine and I have to send him back to prison?”

Matthews said he wouldn’t stand in the way of a drug court in Floyd.

Floyd District Attorney Leigh Patterson said she cannot spare a prosecutor to handle a drug court and added that her judges already can sentence drug offenders to a local day-reporting center, work-release center and substance abuse program. She also questioned the appropriateness of such a program in court.

“The judge is supposed to be objective, nonbiased and make the hard calls,” she said. “If you get the court so invested in these people’s success, that could get fraught with problems.”

Judge Bagley of Forsyth County acknowledges those concerns.

“That’s their belief. That’s their opinion,” Bagley said. “I do give [defendants] incentives, but I keep the boundary there between judge and defendant. I’m dealing with them in a different way, but I don’t believe that boundary is breached.”

When Bagley first started running Forsyth’s drug court, he wasn’t sure whether it was the right role for him, either. But he was quickly convinced of the value of the program, which requires a team approach instead of the adversarial relationship that defines most of what happens in a courtroom.

Bagley, who now chairs the accountability courts committee of the state Judicial Council, tells those in his court that the program will require them to make profound changes in their life. “If you think you can fake it and make it — you won’t,” he says. “That is not going to happen.”

Bagley added there is no real downside to the program. “If they fail, I will sentence them,” he said. “If they succeed, society is better off.”

‘This is who I am’

Chuck Geter, a former Marine and Desert Storm veteran, entered Forsyth’s drug court after violating his probation by testing positive for alcohol use.

Geter did not embrace the program initially and found it difficult to comply with rigorous requirements overseen by a judge who was about his age. But, over time, he said, he recognized the value of the program.

“It taught me ownership,” Geter, 42, said. “It taught me, you know, I did this and I have to own it. It taught me honesty — how to be honest with myself and not sugarcoat things. This is who I am.”

The father of two girls, Geter said he found peace once he accepted the purpose of the program and the fact that he belonged in it. “That’s what really turned the corner for me,” he said.

Geter is among the graduates of Forsyth’s drug court. There is no guarantee that just because he graduated he’ll never drink again. Some graduates do relapse, and some later go on to commit other crimes.

But drug court administrators note that graduates who later relapse were — as is required for drug court participants — working in jobs or going to school while they were in the program. And they now know where to go to get support, such as the Alcoholics Anonymous or Narcotics Anonymous meetings that they were required to attend regularly, along with their other drug court obligations.

Judge Deal acknowledges there are some graduates who will appear before him again.

“Find me something that works 100 percent and I’ll take it,” Deal said. “But nothing works 100 percent. Drug court, I’ve found, works a whole lot better than prison. ... If you compare drug court cases to every probation warrant I sign for those who’ve been released from prison and re-offend again or test positive for drugs, it’s not even close.”

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