Georgia Gov: Drug court offers good alternative

Cost of crime and punishment is high on new governor Nathan Deal's list

By Jim Galloway
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

ATLANTA — Despite three years of turmoil, the economic crisis in Georgia has resulted in few fundamental shifts in state policy.

We have had furloughs, layoffs and ballooning classrooms forced by the whittling of state and local budgets. Price-conscious state troopers, looking to save on gas, are chasing fewer speeders and setting up more DUI gantlets.

Georgia Governor Nathan Deal has said that violent offenders will remain behind bars, but the state needs to rethink the costs of locking up others, like nonviolent drug offenders.
Georgia Governor Nathan Deal has said that violent offenders will remain behind bars, but the state needs to rethink the costs of locking up others, like nonviolent drug offenders. (AP photo)

But the Great Recession has yet to alter our basic approach to problems — although that may be about to change.

In recent days, both Gov. Nathan Deal and House Speaker David Ralston have dropped not-so-subtle hints that Georgia can no longer afford to lock up so many of its people. Or, at least, so many of the wrong people.

Some of the first words out of Deal's mouth as governor last week touched on the cost of crime and punishment. "One out of every 13 Georgia residents is under some form of correctional control," he said in his inaugural address. "It costs about $3 million per day to operate our Department of Corrections."

The governor spoke carefully. Law enforcement ranks are still fuming over the December death of Trooper Chadwick LeCroy, allegedly killed by a miscreant who had skated through the judicial system 18 times.

Violent men and women will be kept behind bars, the new governor promised. But we need to rethink the costs of locking up others. Nonviolent drug offenders, for instance.

"As a state, we cannot afford to have so many of our citizens waste their lives because of addictions," Deal said. "It is draining our state treasury and depleting our work force."

Georgia has roughly 53,000 people under lock and key — a higher proportion of its population than that of all but seven other states.

Those whose principal offense is possession of cocaine, crack or methamphetamine number 1,500 by themselves.

Look for the governor to propose a statewide expansion of drug courts that emphasize treatment rather than prison.

As for the source of Deal's inspiration, cast your eyes no further than the man who administered his oath of office: Hall County Superior Court Judge Jason Deal, the governor's 42-year-old son, who runs one of Georgia's 28 drug courts.

"I would come home and tell stories about what I'd seen," Jason Deal said in an interview. "If you don't believe in miracles, just come see drug court for a day. You'll leave believing in miracles. When [drug offenders] start getting clean and being held accountable and having to work, their whole life changes. They become law-abiding citizens who work every day and support their kids. That should be the goal of our justice system."

The phrase "drug court" is something of a misnomer — because to enter, you first have to plead guilty.

Participants are required to have a job and pay the costs of the program. Random testing for drug use is constant. Upon completion of a two-year program of addiction treatment and counseling, the felony conviction is erased.

Violations and backsliding are punished with community service and jail time. The key, Jason Deal said, is presenting participants with immediate consequences for their actions.

Think, he said, of the normal bureaucratic path a criminal takes.

"Somebody commits a crime, they get arrested and they go bond out. It may be a year before they have to face the consequences of their act. That's terrible when you think about behavior modification," Jason Deal said.

His drug court is different. "If you test positive on Tuesday, you're going to come see me on Friday, and I'm going to put you in jail. Not for a long time — but long enough to get your attention," Jason Deal said.

Nathan and Sandra Deal are big fans of their son's work. In an interview last week, the first lady proudly noted that Jason Deal had been forced to buy more refrigerators to house a surplus of urine samples.

Nathan Deal, as a congressman in 2009, addressed a graduating class of his son's drug court.

But Gov. Deal won't be relying solely on Judge Deal's experience to justify an end to placing drug addicts behind bars.

A report issued by the state Department of Audits last year said that only 7 percent of those who went through drug courts in 2005 returned to the criminal life. Among a similar population that was sent to prison, the recidivism rate was 29 percent.

"Each individual sentenced to drug court instead of state prison saves the state an estimated $10,293 in sentencing costs," the report said.

In other words, drug courts cost less and work better than prisons.

"We're spending a huge amount of money locking people up that have drug problems," Ralston said earlier this month. "At some point, the people of Georgia have a right to ask if that's an appropriate way to spend their tax dollars."

On the Senate side, both Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle and Senate President pro tem Tommie Williams, R-Lyons, say they're open to the idea of putting drug offenders somewhere other than prison — if the thing is done right.

Drug courts aren't magic. They cost money to establish. One of the larger hurdles would be making sure participants had access to jobs while they're being treated.

But conservatives often say that economic hardship is a fine thing when it comes to government because it forces efficiencies upon those most resistant to change. We're about to find out how true that is.

Copyright 2011 The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

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