June 18--  The cost of housing non-violent prisoners has become so high that state lawmakers passed a law this year giving judges more latitude in passing sentences.  Here's an explanation of Accountability Courts from State Senator Jack Hill of Reidsville.

ACCOUNTABILITY COURTS

Across the country, states are grappling with the increasing costs of housing prisoners as well as struggling with how to rehabilitate offenders.  Many times, prisons have become revolving doors for offenders and consequently eat into funds that could be spent on more important programs.  In response to this costly cycle, states have been increasing the number of accountability courts and the State of Georgia is moving in that direction. Studies have indicated that accountability courts are a cost effective alternative to sentencing and, in certain cases, have produced better results when compared to traditional sentencing options (such as incarceration and probation).

 

The Accountability Court Funding committee was just recently created on May 24th and will guide funding and standards for accountability courts statewide.  This board will be composed of appointments from the Governor and the Chief Justice.  These appointments are expected to be announced soon.

 

WHAT ARE ACCOUNTABILITY COURTS

The term "accountability courts" is a bit misleading because it implies that participants go through a separate process for determining innocence or guilt. Participants go through an adjudication process as any other defendant. The difference in the program occurs after conviction. Instead of sentencing offenders to a state prison or other residential correctional center, local judges and a team of professionals create a program where the offender can receive treatment while being supervised in the community. Take for example cases involving a drug user. As part of the accountability court program, the offender typically reports to regularly scheduled hearings with a judge in order to discuss their progress. Although programs vary based on the type of drug addiction or criminal offense, there are universally consistent practices. The program provides therapy within his or her community through evidence-based substance abuse treatment, case management, drug testing, and community supervision. If an offender breaks a rule of the program, such as testing positive for drugs, missing a meeting with a judge or not completing a therapy assignment, consequences are imposed. These consequences range from a warning to spending a few days in jail. Repeated rule violations are not tolerated.  Offenders know that if they do not follow the program strictly, they will be sent to prison to serve a traditional sentence.  .

 

The possibility of serving a traditional sentence is a good motivator for accountability court participants. Thanks to the combination of judicial monitoring and constant interaction with participants, graduates of the accountability courts program have proven less likely to repeat their offenses. 

 

Accountability courts are unique in that they are programs started voluntarily by judges, and treatment is overseen in a courtroom rather than a correctional facility. Various types of accountability courts have been set up throughout the state in order to address different offenses. These include adult felony and juvenile drug courts, DUI courts, mental health courts, veteran's courts, and family dependency treatment courts. Eligibility of an offender for an accountability court is determined by the local district attorney. Since the program is voluntary for the offender, traditional sentencing options are then determined by the presiding judge if the offender does not successfully complete the program.

 

SUCCESS OF ACCOUNTABILITY COURTS

A Georgia Department of Audits and Accounts analysis, dated September 14, 2010, found that accountability courts are more cost effective than traditional sentencing options, and are also more likely to reduce the possibility of recidivism, or the rate at which an offender repeats a criminal offense. In a cost comparison, the Department of Audits and Accounts found that state prisons cost on average $49 per day per prisoner while adult felony drug courts, average $14 per day per participant.  In terms of recidivism, drug courts only average a 7% recidivism rate by offenders within the first two years of completion.  Comparably, a two-year average recidivism rate for offenders in state prison is 29%.

 

It was because of these compelling figures that the Senate initiated the expansion of accountability courts in the FY2012 budget.  In the FY2013 budget, the Senate joined the House and the Governor in the addition of $10 million to not only support the local programs already in existence, but also financially assist the creation of new accountability courts.  With the Department of Correction's budget hovering near $1 billion, hopefully other alternatives will require less resources for traditional incarceration.

 

Of course, probation is also an alternative sentence that includes probation substance abuse treatment centers and probation detention centers.  Basic probation is the most common and cheapest option, but those in basic probation do not receive treatment and are more likely to repeat their offenses or substance abuse.