Still others suffer along with a loved one who is addicted to a substance and is caught in the endless cycle of entering and leaving the criminal justice system.
For years, the criminal justice system has answered this scourge on our community by repeatedly incarcerating addicted individuals hoping that the “problem” would resolve before release from prison. Time and time again, this traditional method has proven ineffective as anything more than a short-term solution that briefly removes the individual from society.
As our prisons become more crowded and the recidivism rate increases in Georgia, the time to rethink our approach to the drug epidemic has arrived. The Cherokee County Judicial System is poised to lead with an innovative program, the felony drug accountability court.
Nationally, there is a trend toward recognizing the value of preventing the escalation and severity of an addicted individual’s criminal activity through court mandated treatment programs. These programs, referred to as drug accountability courts, are designed to break the cycle of drug addiction through identification of addicts and rehabilitation with accountability to the court.
Drug courts are specifically designed to provide intensive supervision, drug treatment services and a high level of accountability for participants. A multi-disciplinary team model is used and team members include members of the judiciary as well as professionals from the probation department, mental health services, the prosecution and the defense.
The treatment community is then used to aid in the recovery of these individuals with specific profiles that involve addiction and criminal activity. This team approach has proven to significantly reduce drug use and criminal activity, the by-product being safer communities and savings for tax payers.
According to research performed by the National Association of Drug Court Professionals, drug courts are effective at reducing recidivism with approximately 75 percent of drug court graduates remaining arrest-free for at least two years after initial arrest. Furthermore, drug courts haven proven to be cost effective by reducing costs associated with arrests, trials, incarceration and victimization.
In 2013, Cherokee County joined 43 other counties across the state in developing and utilizing a felony adult drug accountability court, which is supported largely by grants. Under the visionary leadership of Judge Ellen McElyea, the Cherokee Drug Accountability Court accepted its first participant on Feb. 6, 2013. Since that date, the program has grown and currently includes 30 participants.
Our drug court is a post-adjudication court, which means that the defendants must come before the court, accept responsibility for their actions by entering a guilty plea and then be sentenced to drug court as a special condition of probation.
This court is not designed for every defendant in the criminal justice system. However, anyone with a pending felony charge in Cherokee can apply and be screened for admission to the program.
As district attorney, I personally screen all of the applications to determine whether the defendant is legally eligible under the specific rules of our program.
If the defendant is legally eligible, I will make a recommendation to accept or deny the candidate based on the charges, the facts of the individual case, the defendant’s criminal history, and input from law enforcement and the victim of the crime.
After submission of my recommendation to the Drug Court coordinator, the multi-disciplinary team discusses the case and reaches a decision about admission of the candidate into the program.
Research has shown that accountability courts are most successful with the medium to high-level offenders who are addicted to drugs as opposed to first time, low-level offenders. Consequently, our drug court is focusing on this class of offenders.
Once accepted into our program, these participants are required to complete a rigorous program that includes individual and group treatment, random drug testing, weekly appearances before the court, regular meetings with the drug court case manager, and regular visits from surveillance and probation officers.
Unlike typical cases where offenders only come before the judge once to enter plea and then never see the judge again unless they violate their probation, participants in drug court come before the judge weekly. If the individual has done well, he receives praise. If he has not complied with the program, he is sanctioned.
If the participant continuously fails to abide the rules of the program, then he faces expulsion from the program and is then resentenced, usually to prison.
As the Cherokee County Drug Accountability Court continues to evolve and grow, the data collected should begin to reflect both lowered recidivism and lives salvaged through recovery.
The ripple effects of this approach will not only affect crime rates in our county, but also should be reflected in the families of the county. Children otherwise destined to come into care and remain in the child welfare system may instead remain with caregivers made whole by treatment.
The responsible approach to drug addiction in our county must incorporate more than simple punishment. As a society we have moved beyond repeating the same failed approach time and time again. Every success in Drug Accountability Court is a victory for Cherokee citizens.
And as your district attorney, I join the rest of the criminal justice system in striving to improve the safety of our families every day.
Shannon Wallace is the District Attorney of the Blue Ridge Judicial Circuit. She graduated cum laude from the University of Georgia School of Law in 2002. She and her husband, Kyle, and their two children live in the Towne Lake community.