A new kind of court meant to rehabilitate drug abusers instead of jail them is expected to start next month in Richmond and Columbia counties.
Officially called Accountability and Treatment Court, it is more commonly referred to as "drug court."
"We'll be looking for the people who have shown that addiction is damaging their potential for successful probation," said Augusta Judicial Circuit District Attorney Ashley Wright. "The goal is not punishment."
In exchange for a guilty plea, those chosen to participate in drug court avoid jail but must complete at least 24 months of drug rehabilitation and counseling from Bradford Health Services and possibly other drug recovery programs.
Ms. Wright referred to drug court as a "carrot-and-stick approach" to justice.
"The carrot is that if you successfully complete the program ... then your case will get dispensed," she said. "If they do, unfortunately, not complete the program, then the guilty plea is already in place. The court just then has to enter a sentence, and they can't challenge it."
Richmond and Columbia counties have budgeted $102,250 and $81,550 to fund the drug court, which will be held in Richmond County's Law Enforcement Center on Walton Way and at the Columbia County Courthouse in Evans.
Ms. Wright estimated that prisons spend about $38 to $48 each day on the average inmate. She thinks keeping offenders out of jail and putting them into rehabilitation will eventually save taxpayer dollars.
It can take 60 to 90 days for someone arrested for a property or drug crime to appear in court, Superior Court Judge James G. Blanchard Jr. said. With drug court, offenders can appear as quickly as a week later.
Judge Blanchard witnessed the havoc wreaked by drug abuse when a close family member got hooked on methamphetamine. The judge spearheaded the effort to create the drug court, which he hopes will help reduce crime.
Authorities estimate that 80 percent of property crimes -- such as shoplifting, thefts, robberies and car thefts -- are committed by addicts seeking money to fund their next high.
"I think history has shown that just putting (drug addicts) in jail without any treatment is that they come back and recommit crimes," Judge Blanchard said. "They'll steal your car, give it to a drug dealer to make a run or two, and then get some drugs for providing the car. They'll break into your house. They'll break into your business. They'll steal your credit cards. They'll steal your checks. They'll use all of these instruments to obtain funds to buy drugs."
When the drug court begins in July, authorities will involve only nonviolent offenders already on probation who have been re- arrested or violated the terms of probation.
"We want to separate those we are mad at, your drug offenders, from those that scare us, which would be violent offenders," Ms. Wright said. "The ones who scare us won't be eligible. The ones we're just mad at are the ones we'll target for help."
That help goes beyond drug counseling. The program also helps participants find employment and rewards good behavior with donated movie tickets, transportation or meal vouchers and other forms of "sober recreation," Ms. Wright said.
Drug court participants must also submit to regular testing, appear in court each week, follow a curfew and submit to surprise home inspections by sheriff's deputies, Judge Blanchard said.
Burke County might be included in the program later, Ms. Wright said.
The drug court is modeled on others around the country. Judge Blanchard said they have about a 70 percent success rate.
"The drug problem in this country is so severe that if we continue to ignore it, it will never get any better," the judge said. "The drug court is proven to work. We're asking that the public give us a chance."
Anyone wishing to donate or volunteer can call coordinator Ted Wiggins at (706) 823-4424.
Reach Donnie Fetter at (706) 868-1222, ext. 115, or firstname.lastname@example.org.