A hard sentence of hope

Sarah Wibell Featured, News

“Please, Judge,” begged a woman clad in an orange jump suit and handcuffs. “Please let me back into drug court.”

Superior Court Judge Amanda Petty listened, reminded the woman of her shortcoming, sat firm and considered the options she had. “I’m sorry,” she told the woman. “I’ve got to go with my gut on this one.”

Her gut was to send the woman back to prison until a spot in a state-sponsored rehabilitation center might come available. Drug Court for this woman, so far, had not worked.

For many others, however, it does. This is the first part of a four part series on the Adult Treatment Court Collaborative, known as “Drug Court” for administrators and participants. The unique approach to working with non-violent offenders in the rotating court system is proving to be beneficial both financially and socially.

The National Institute of Drug Abuse states, “Abuse of tobacco, alcohol, and illicit drugs is costly to our Nation, exacting more than $740 billion annually in costs related to crime, lost work productivity and health care.” With concerns over the infamous revolving door of the criminal justice system, some members of the court system, law enforcement, and corresponding areas are seeking a more effective means of dealing with offenders. One such avenue is the utilization of specialized drug courts like the program offered by the Ocmulgee Judicial Circuit of the 8th Superior Court District of Georgia.

Drug courts are a form of accountability courts that allow certain individuals who have substance abuse, mental health or co-occurring disorders, and are convicted of criminal activity a choice: either go to jail or voluntarily enter a treatment program. The treatment collaboratives enable participants to avoid significant jail time while receiving assistance for their problems through an extensive and demanding process in the communities in which they live.

Superior Court Judge Brenda Trammell commented, “It’s not that I think that there are not people (…) who need to go to prison, and I don’t mind sending them there when they go, but when I look at someone and realize that the underlying issue is a mental illness that is not being addressed, substance abuse issues, or both, I have an opportunity to deal with that in a different way. It’s worth taking the time and putting in the energy to see if it works.”

Drug courts are not universally found across the United States; instead, they are optionally established and operated. The first drug court was established in Miami-Dade County, Florida, in 1989 (sentencingproject.org). As of June 2015, the National Institute of Justice reported that there were more than 3,000 drug courts across the country targeting diverse demographics including adult, family, federal veterans, juvenile, et cetera. Of those specifically addressing adults, there were 1,558 drug courts. Three Superior Court judges – Judge Brenda Trammell, Judge Alison Burleson, and Judge Amanda Petty – currently preside over the Ocmulgee Circuit Adult Treatment Court Collaborative (ATCC), which serves Morgan, Baldwin, Greene, Hancock, Jasper, Jones, Putnam, and Wilkinson counties.

Judge Petty emphasized, “Superior Court judges are not required to have drug courts. It’s essentially an additional duty that you can have if you choose to create one in your circuit. … I was actively involved in representing children in our family treatment court, which is our juvenile court version of the ATCC, since its inception. So, I was very familiar with accountability treatment courts and how they work and help individuals with mental health and substance abuse issues. When I became a Superior Court judge (after being elected in 2016 and taking the bench in January 2017), I wanted to help Judge Burleson and Judge Trammell. They were the two (judges) handling it at the time, and they were gracious enough to share with me.”

Admission to the program is determined on a case-by-case basis for individuals who are 18 years of age or older, have a pending criminal offense, at least two years of remaining or impending jail time, have a minimum Intelligence Quotient of 70, can physically and mentally participate, do not have traumatic brain injuries, and are neither sex nor violent offenders. The final stipulation means that there cannot be charges pursuant to O.C.G.A. 15-1-16 – i.e. murder, rape, sexual battery, armed robbery, aggravated assault, sexual molestation, or aggravated sodomy, also referred to as the “7 Deadly Sins”.

ATCC Coordinator April Robinson elucidated, “With our treatment piece of our program, participants are required to do assignments, homework, reading, and engage in support groups. We don’t want to set anyone up for failure if they are not able to complete the assignments, and we don’t want to embarrass anyone.”

The ATCC is an 18-24-month voluntary program with four phases, each with specific requirements, that participants must successfully complete. This includes random drug screening, complying with treatment recommendations and probation requirements, weekly meetings with case managers, attending two or more court sessions a month, adhering to a curfew, having a sponsor, and going to community support meetings like Alcoholics Anonymous. Additionally, participants must gain sustainable employment – i.e. work that takes out taxes – and, if they do not have either a GED (General Education Development) or a high school diploma, they are required to earn at least a GED diploma. There is also a $1K fee that has to be paid before graduating from the ATCC.

Robinson elaborated, “We tend to have participants make monthly payments so they won’t be bombarded at graduation to try to pay it off, and their monthly payment is based on their financial situation. We help them budget not only to pay what is required of the program but also to be able to manage their household. They have to comply with the program’s rules. We also have surveillance officers in our program who go out to participants’ homes, meet with them randomly, and possibly subject them to drug screenings. It’s very intensive and does take a lot of the participants’ time.”

When program rules are not followed or if there is a positive drug test, the judges issue sanctions at their discretion to keep the participants on track. Sanctions might be a night, 24 hours, or more in jail depending on the offense and frequency. If participants repeatedly test positive, residential treatment programs may be considered.

“You can’t take a person who’s been stuck in substance abuse for 25 or more years and expect them to stop when some of the people who enter our program have never had the skills to maintain their sobriety,” Robinson noted. “A part of our program is to teach them those skills and strengthen them.”

Markley stated, “Some people react like this (program) is ridiculous and ask why aren’t we being tough on these people, but you have to see it from this side. The reality is that (drug courts are) our only option right now, because we’ve been beating our heads against what we’ve been doing for the last 30 years. On my side, we’re arresting offenders and putting them in jail and believe there needs to be a punishment, but if the punishment is that we’re making people worse, then are we helping? That’s not a reflection on the officials running prisons, it’s a reflection on the environment that prisoners are in. I always talk about gangs and the gangs infiltrating our community. The common (assumption) is they’re going to come from Atlanta. The reality is the gangs are coming out of the prison system. Offenders go off to prison and have to affiliate just to survive, and then they come back in the community with those ties to the gangs that don’t necessarily fade when they leave that system. That’s why I say if we can catch them before we send them off to the prison the first time, we have a better chance at stopping further crime by trying to redirect people who have made bad choices so they can make good decisions and be productive members of society. That’s why the ATCC is a valuable program. People might say that I’m soft on crime, but I’m really not. I’m realistic to the state of our systems.”

In an effort to prevent future offenses and relapses, the ATCC offers a number of services including Cognitive Behavioral Intervention for Substance Abuse (CBI-SA), Moral Reconation Therapy (MRT), Anger Management, and Seeking Safety counseling. In addition, an aftercare program for graduates bolsters the life and addiction coping skills taught in the prior 18-24 months.

“We want (ATCC participants) to be able to support themselves when they graduate our program,” Robinson remarked. “For a lot of individuals, once they do graduate our program, we have a six-month aftercare piece of our program where they can come back and remain with us for an extra six months and attend our meetings and still submit to random drug screens. After six months, as long as they don’t have any new offenses, we file a petition to the court to see if their probation can be terminated. Of course, everyone on the team has to be in agreement for that to happen, including the District Attorney and probation office.”

“The Adult Treatment Court Collaborative is not being soft on crime,” Markley asserted. “It’s changing the way we punish and deal with folks who have made bad decisions.”

Next week: the inner workings of the Ocmulgee Circuit ATCC.

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