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News (Media Awareness Project) - US GA: Drug Court Dispenses Unique Form Of Justice
Title:US GA: Drug Court Dispenses Unique Form Of Justice
Published On:2011-11-28
Source:Atlanta Journal-Constitution (GA)
Fetched On:2011-11-30 06:01:44
DRUG COURT DISPENSES UNIQUE FORM OF JUSTICE

Friday mornings in Superior Court Judge Brian Amero's courtroom are as
much about dispensing life lessons as exacting justice.

Recently, the Henry County judge met with four drug addicts taking
part in an innovative rehabilitation program created by Amero to get
them well while saving taxpayers money.

Instead of sitting on his bench, Amero talked face to face with each
person, listening as they told about the challenges they faced during
the week.

One man complained about having to wait a long time to see his
probation officer. A young woman wanted to know if she could waive
paying some of what she owed the court so she could repay money she
owed her grandfather. Another man came up short completing his
community service hours.

Amero gently but firmly admonished them that life isn't fair or often
flexible. Pay your court debt. Granddad will have to wait, he said.
Now, instead of having to do 20 hours of community service, the errant
participant must do 28. No excuses.

Welcome to Henry County's new adult felony drug court, an 18-month
intensive program.

"We're trying to turn people who are tax burdens into people who are
taxpayers," said Amero, who recalled his frustration as a prosecutor
seeing drug users repeatedly show up in court because no one was
addressing their underlying addiction.

The drug court is part of a growing national trend known as
accountability courts, programs created to help offenders avoid jail
time through rigorous rehabilitation programs. The number of
accountability courts nationwide has grown to more than 3,000 since
their inception in the early 1990s.

Georgia has 2,800 offenders being supervised by 33 adult felony drug
courts, said John Foller, Atlanta-based coordinator of the state's
accountability court system. In addition to drug courts for adults and
children, Georgia has accountability courts for DUI, mental health,
domestic abuse, family dependency treatment, child support and
veterans.

Henry's drug court is financed with money seized in drug raids and
court fees paid by offenders. It is the county's third accountability
court. Henry also has a DUI court in its state court and a mental
health court.

"It's an investment," Foller said. "The outcomes are good for
everybody. You save money and fewer people get in trouble in the end."

Henry had more than 6,000 arrests last year; 25 percent - or 1,500
arrests - involved drugs or alcohol. Other types of arrests documented
in association with drug use were burglary, robbery, larceny and
aggravated assault, said Kelly Bush, Henry's court financial
administrator.

"This is a persistent problem, one that needs this nuanced approach,"
Amero said of the new court. "It can make a big difference in the
amount we spend on corrections and in people's lives, and it will have
a ripple affect on families and communities."

Henry's drug court will cost about $10,220 per person, including
courtroom costs, drug screenings and counseling, based on an average
of 25 participants, which court officials expect to have within two
months. That compares with $85,440, the average cost to taxpayers to
incarcerate one person for five years, Bush said.

The program, however, is not a Get Out of Jail Free card.

"It's a highly structured program," Amero said.

Once a participant enters the drug court program, their prison
sentence is suspended. Participants have to attend nine hours a week
of group counseling, plus do at least 20 hours of community service
each week or have a full-time job.

They also must attend an Alcoholics Anonymous or Narcotics Anonymous
meeting every day during the week and must report to the probation
officer once a week, in addition to going to court every Friday.
During the week, they also have to submit to drug tests and random,
unannounced searches by police. They also must abide by a curfew set
by the court.

"They've signed a waiver of their Fourth Amendment rights that allows
police to search their home, vehicle or the person themselves day or
night," Amero said. "There's really no privacy or opportunity to
secret drugs from any [drug court] team member."

An hour before drug court convenes each Friday morning, Amero meets
with his team: the public defender, prosecutor, counselor, probation
officer, the officer who does the random checks and the drug court
coordinator.

The weekly team meeting helps the officials "know what [the
participants] are saying. We also know immediately if someone's not
doing well or not following through," said drug court coordinator
Daryl Dotschay. "It's high accountability. Everybody is on the same
page. We're right there to deal with whatever issues come up."

In the two weeks since the court has been in session, Amero said there
have been no violations among participants in the program. "I'm very
excited about the direction we're taking this group," he said.

Program participants say it has been a learning experience and has
kept them busy. The court declined to give their full names to protect
their privacy.

If a participant doesn't complete the program, he or she must serve
their jail sentence, said Amero, who has been on Henry's Superior
Court bench for five years.

"It's a remarkable savings," Amero said. "It's not just a tax saving.
You're also allowing people to reconnect to the community in a
positive way."
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