In the hushed chamber of the Supreme Court of Georgia last week, a group of six people who once faced the possibility of going to jail, along with a life damaged by drug addiction, found themselves being honored by some of the state’s highest-ranking officials.
Gov. Nathan Deal told the group, “You are our Exhibit A that drug courts work. Your success will validate the judgment the General Assembly has made to expand these programs.”
“Don’t let us down,” the governor urged.
Supreme Court Chief Justice George Carley stepped forward and said, “You have proven you can change your life in a positive way, and we’re all supporting you. Thank you for letting me be part of this.”
These six people were the latest to complete the counseling and treatment that are part of the Gwinnett County drug court program. Gwinnett, like other counties around the state, established a drug court as an alternative to sending persons to prison or keeping them under the costly supervision of probation officers. Deal, who supports these courts as a more economical way to spend tax dollars, noted in his remarks that his son, Superior Court Judge Jason Deal, was at that very moment presiding over a drug court session in Northeast Georgia.
The young people who were receiving diplomas for completing the drug court program appeared to be quietly grateful for the opportunity.
“To be here today, man, I just feel good,” said one of the graduates, who had failed a couple of drug tests in his early days with the program but persevered. “That’s all I got.”
“I made it and I really didn’t think I could,” said a young woman who was the daughter of a deputy sheriff but had still gotten caught up in a drug habit. “This is the greatest accomplishment of my life.”
Gwinnett Superior Court Judge Billy Ray has been the county’s drug court judge since the program’s start, and presided over the graduation ceremony.
“It’s easy to be hard as a judge, to sentence someone to go to prison,” said Ray, who was once a state senator. When he first became involved in Gwinnett’s drug court, Ray said, it required a bit of an attitude adjustment for someone who had run for political office pledging to “get tough on crime.”
Those who are diverted to a drug court are facing prosecution on low-level criminal charges or have failed a drug test while on probation and are going to be sent back to prison.
Successful completion of the drug court program, which includes a requirement to pass many drug tests, offers them a chance to wipe the slate clean. As he called up each of the graduates, Ray either noted that the local district attorney would file for a dismissal of the criminal charge or said simply, “Your probation is now terminated.”
The Gwinnett drug court has graduated 121 people so far, although not everyone has succeeded in staying out of trouble. Ray estimated there’s a 10 to 15 percent recidivism rate among the program’s graduates, but said that’s still better than the rate among those prosecuted in the traditional court system and sent to prison.
Ray is stepping down as drug court judge because he is now head of the Georgia Council of Superior Court Judges. He is turning over the job to Superior Court Judge Tom Davis, a Navy veteran and former prosecutor with the Gwinnett County district attorney’s office.
Davis recalled that when the idea of a drug court was first proposed about eight years ago, he and the district attorney had a long discussion about it.
“Danny Porter and I agreed this would be a crashing waste of time,” Davis said.
As he has seen the drug court operate, that viewpoint has changed.
“Our commitment to the program is rock solid,” Davis said.
It is easy to criticize government programs as a waste of taxpayer dollars that accomplish nothing. It is also, all too often, an accurate criticism.
The drug court graduation ceremony was a touching reminder that there are times when government programs can provide help to people who really need it to turn their lives around. I know at least six people who would agree with that.
(Tom Crawford is editor of The Georgia Report, an Internet news service at gareport.com.)