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Judges tackle drug abuse, mental health through accountability courts

rtrimarchi@ledger-enquirer.com

One by one drug offenders appear before Judge Frank Jordan Jr. with details about the rocky road to recovery.

“How long have you been sober,” the judge asks one man struggling with a long-time drug addiction.

“Eight months now,” the man says proudly.

“Let’s give him a hand,” the judge replies. And the courtroom erupts in applause.

At first glance, the encounter seems more like an Alcoholics or a Narcotics Anonymous meeting than a court appearance. But it’s the weekly routine at Muscogee County’s Adult Drug Court, a program designed to help drug offenders overcome their addictions through the criminal justice system.

Within judicial circles, the drug court is considered an “accountability court,” established to provide effective alternatives to sentencing for nonviolent offenders struggling with substance abuse, mental illness and other issues. Accountability courts — with their treatment plans, drug screening and goal-setting approach — are a growing trend across the United States, expanding court services to case management typically found in the social services arena.

Muscogee County has four accountability courts. In addition to the Adult Drug Court, there’s the Juvenile Drug Court, the Mental Health Court and the Veterans Court. Local judges said those programs are so successful that they’re planning to add two more accountability courts in the near future — one for parents not paying child support and another for families struggling with addiction.

“Accountability courts have really, really come into vogue,” said local Juvenile Drug Court Judge Warner Kennon. “They were the cutting edge when we got started a number of years ago. It's a very hands-on, intensive, court-supervised probation.”

Jordan said accountability courts are a more cost-effective way to deal with non-violent offenders than traditional courtrooms.

“We spend about $50,000 a year to keep someone in prison,” he said. “And by putting them out on the street in the community, they become, hopefully, money-earning citizens who can turn themselves around.”

One big proponent of accountability courts is Gov. Nathan Deal, whose son, Jason Deal, is a presiding judge of a drug court in Hall County, Ga., Jordan said.

“He had the foresight to take dollars from prisons and put them into state drug court programs,” he said. “We’ve been able to do this because we have funding sources.”

Dr. Andrew Cox is a licensed addiction counselor who works with the Adult Drug Court as a program and clinical evaluator. He said accountability courts began in 1989 with the first drug court in Miami. Today there are 2,840 drug courts throughout the United States and its territories, serving about 54,777 participants at risk for substance abuse and dependency, according to a recent research paper written by Cox and published by the Forum on Public Policy. The number represents about 10 percent of the 1.2 million adults arrested in the U.S. each year who are at risk for substance abuse and dependence.

“Basically, it arose really as a means to deal with overcrowding in prisons,” Cox said. “A significant amount of prisoners were there because of drug offenses and they weren’t getting any treatment. And, of course, it’s kind of expensive housing people in prison for nonviolent offenses. So they got the idea of starting these drug courts, combining treatment with the criminal justice system.”

Soon, mental health courts were established, and veterans courts followed, providing mental health and substance abuse services to veterans and active duty military personnel facing criminal prosecution.

Many participants in the various accountability courts have a combination of mental health and substance abuse problems, Cox said, and it takes a holistic approach to address their needs.

“The people in mental health court also have co-occurring substance abuse disorder,” he explained. “And then many of the veterans have co-occurring disorders of mental health coupled with substance abuse. Even with the drug courts, a significant proportion of the people have a co-occurring mental health disorder — depression, anxiety, that kind of thing.”

Cox said many individuals in the Adult Drug Court have a long history of substance abuse. In Muscogee County, the average age for participants is early to mid-30s, and the average age that they started using drugs is somewhere around 13 or 14.

“For many of these people, it’s the first time they’ve had a stable situation, where they’ve worked, had an apartment, rented a house,” he said. “Drug courts do not take people who pose a risk to the community. So they don’t take violent offenders, people that are convicted of an assault or have a gun charge or some type. They focus solely on those who have some sort of legal charge that involve substance abuse, or they were engaging in some sort of behavior to support their substance abuse history.”

Kennon said many of the cases that he sees in the Juvenile Drug Court involve not just youths but also parents suffering from addiction. That’s why he’s currently seeking funding to launch the family dependency court

“The family treatment court would allow me to wrap my arms around the whole family situation and I think that would help break the cycle,” he said.

Chief Superior Court Judge Gil McBride said the parent child support court will be another way to help families trapped in the judicial system and also address the foster care crisis in the community. He said the new court, scheduled to start in the Spring, will be the first civil accountability court in the Chattahoochee Judicial Circuit.

“The legislature and the Governor have come up with funding for a caseworker to help these parents — usually dads but some moms, too — to reconnect with their children, to find employment, to get job training skills and other things that are part of the problem,” he said.

Many of the accountability courts go beyond supervisory services provided in the courtroom.

In addition to city Crime Prevention and state funds, Muscogee County’s Adult Drug Court recently received a competitive federal grant, amounting to a total of $975,000. The grant, funded by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, provides $325,000 annually, renewable for up to three years.

Dayna Solomon, adult drug court coordinator, said the money is being used to add 30 to 40 additional cases, provide 16 transitional housing beds for program participants, and establish the court’s own medication assistance program in partnership with New Horizons Behavioral Health.

The medication assistance program will focus on treating people with opiate and heroin addictions, primarily using an opioid blocker called Vivitrol, which is injected once-a-month.

Solomon said the services are very much needed in the community and the court is developing a sustainability plan to continue with the services after the three-year grant period.

Even before receiving the grant, the Adult Drug Court had its own drug screening lab at the Government Center, where participants are screened three to five times per week. It’s also used by the mental health court.

The Adult Drug Court is held every Wednesday in Jordan’s courtroom. Participants go through a five-phase program and are rewarded for their progress at every level. In addition to regular drug screenings and treatment, they’re also required to set goals and keep journals, which the judge reads in court.

Each case is managed by a team that consists of court personnel, a caseworker, someone from the District Attorney’s Office, and mental health and substance abuse professionals. When all phases are completed, participants graduate out of the program. The next graduation will be held Dec. 20.

Jordan said individuals with a history of gang activity or violent crime aren’t allowed in the program. Prospective participants are referred by private attorneys, public defenders, law enforcement officers, relatives and other sources. To participate, they must be approved by the District Attorney’s Office.

The program has reduced the recidivism rate among Adult Drug Court participants by 78 percent, Jordan said. And that’s one of the biggest benefits of accountability courts.

“We are taking those people who are in and out of jail constantly,” said Solomon. “That’s how we’re saving the state and the taxpayers’ dollars. We’re taking the people who should be incarcerated otherwise.”

Alva James-Johnson: 706-571-8521, @amjreporter

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