The Atlanta Journal Constitution ran an in-depth piece last week on the state’s drug courts, their popularity and their effectiveness, as part of a five-part series on accountability courts across the state. There are 35 drug courts in the state; the first was started in Macon in 1994. These courts focus on rehabilitating offenders without sending them to prison, and for many, the results are life changing.
Drug courts take drug and alcohol offenders with addiction problems, and give them the help they need. But contrary to some opponents, these courts aren’t a “hug a thug” system of coddling judges, they are tough.
Participants must adhere to a variety of conditions in order to be successful. But many succeed. According to the AJC report, 77.6% of participants stay until the end. And the results are overwhelmingly positive with only 7% committing another crime within the next two years, that compared with 29% of drug offenders who serve their sentence in prison.
In addition to reducing recidivism, drug courts cost less. They operate on $20 a day, compared with the $51 per day it costs to incarcerate someone. Drug courts saved the state of Georgia an estimated $14 million in 2009.
So, why isn’t everyone on board? Some people feel that drug courts turn judges into counselors, a position some judges don’t want to take. Others believe drugs courts don’t do enough to punish the offenders and are an easy way out.
Participants, though they may struggle with staying clean and sober, largely applaud the experience once they’ve graduated from the program. “Most of them say it is the most difficult thing they have had to do in their lives,” says drug court judge and chief judge of the Forsyth County Superior Court Jeffrey Bagley.
Drug courts aren’t available everywhere yet. In 2010, an audit found that 4,000 state inmates qualified for drug court programming but the courts simply weren’t available. Whether they lived where there were no current drug courts, or if there was one nearby but it was full, many additional people could have benefitted from the extra courts. Four counties would reportedly benefit from expanding their current drug court system and two counties that do not have one, could immediately benefit from one.
It seems with the improved recidivism rates and overall affordability of the drug courts that it would be in the state’s best interests to expand the program, but time will only tell if lawmakers will provide the funding and if remaining critics will change their tune.