Funding could help Richmond County expand drug court, other alternative courts

Officials plan to expand program

Gov. Nathan Deal’s recent pledge to boost funding for Geor­gia’s alternative courts is welcome news in Richmond County.

Superior Court Judge James Blanchard, who kick-started this circuit’s drug court in 2008, said the anticipated $10 million earmark in next year’s budget is a validation of a program that was initially met with skepticism.

“Hopefully with this we can enlarge our drug court,” Blanchard said.

Deal said in his State of the State address Jan. 10 that his intention is to improve Georgia’s rehabilitation of low-level offenders and decrease the recidivism rate in a state with one of the highest prison populations. He recommends new drug, DUI, mental health and veteran courts, “all of which have proven to be both cheaper and more effective than traditional courts.”

Richmond County’s judicial circuit is already taking steps in that direction.

On the magistrate level, there are DUI and child support problem-solving courts in development; on the Superior Court level, a mental health court is already helping seven people. Blanchard said the veterans court is still trying to find qualified candidates.

“Our court system is very progressive in this area,” said Ted Wiggins, the drug court coordinator.

Wiggins points to several ben­efits of drug court, including tax­payer savings. While it costs roughly $50 a day to house an inmate in the county jail, the per diem cost of a drug court participant is about $7.

Much of that cost is folded into the participants’ monthly $150 payment, Wiggins said.

But the success of drug court really hinges on how it treats the source of addiction instead of the symptoms, he said.

Over the course of 24 months, drug court participants receive counseling every day, drug screens three times a week and nightly curfew checks. The goal is to show an addict why they are hooked on drugs and how to beat that.

“We’re trying to deal with the problem on a deeper level than just what we see on the surface,” Wiggins said. “This is probably the best thing this circuit has ever done to fight addiction.”

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