Two stories from opposite sides of Georgia demonstrate, in different but hardly unconnected ways, a fundamental pay-now-or-pay-later principle of social costs — human as well as economic.
The first story is set right here in Columbus where, as staff writer Alva James-Johnson reported earlier this week, the latest in a group of accountability courts will be set up in Muscogee County, this one a Family Drug Court.
An almost quarter-million-dollar grant from the Annie E. Casey Foundation, the child-welfare nonprofit that compiles and publishes the annual Kids Count Data Book on the well-being (or otherwise) of America’s children, will enable Juvenile Drug Court Judge Warner Kennon to establish the new program.
Accountability courts, four of which are already in operation here, have proven to be among Georgia’s best alternatives to imprisonment for nonviolent offenders, both adult and juvenile. Indeed, one of the most impressive success stories of Gov. Nathan Deal’s two terms in office has been criminal justice reform, of which alternative sentencing laws passed by the General Assembly have been the major component.
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Although both a Juvenile Drug Court and an Adult Drug Court already exist in Muscogee County, Kennon said the nature of the problem sometimes demands a more comprehensive approach: “Often one or both parents are on some sort of illegal substance,” Kennon told James-Johnson. “Through family court, I can get them help and try to keep the children at home while the parents cooperate and get help if necessary.”
On the other side of the state, an Athens charity clinic is keeping low-income patients out of emergency rooms with much the same approach Georgia and Columbus are using to keep offenders out of jails and foster care.
According to Georgia Health News, a roughly two-year study by the University of Georgia’s College of Public Health shows that emergency room visits by patients treated at the Mercy Health Center were cut almost in half — from 207 to 121 — during the span of the study, with a savings in ER costs of more than $160,000. (This, remember, is from one small patient sample in one county.)
“Many of the clinic’s patients never had access to affordable medical care before,” GHN reports, “and therefore often used local hospital ERs as their primary source of health care. Patients with no coverage would show up at emergency rooms with problems that an insured individual would handle through a routine visit to a doctor’s office.”
Should any of the above come as a surprise to anybody?
The clinic is funded by contributions, grants and foundations. Emergency rooms, as every taxpayer should know, are not. (And besides, whatever the funding source, primary care is almost always a better bargain anyway.)
By what collective cognitive dysfunction does this reality fail to inform our public health decisions as rationally as a similar fact pattern is working in our approach to nonviolent crime?