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Dougherty to explore viability of probation center

Photo by Carly Farrell

Photo by Carly Farrell

ALBANY, Ga. -- After a lengthy discussion Monday, the Dougherty County Commission has authorized its staff to research the viability of a proposal by the Georgia Department of Corrections to put a substance abuse rehabilitation facility for probationers in Albany.

It's a discussion that has been ongoing since September when DOC Probation Director Stanley Cooper appeared before the commission requesting its help in locating a building suitable to house the facility -- a request that has yet to find a resolution.

At issue is the location of a day reporting center, a facility that DOC officials have billed as an alternative sentencing option for judges when considering non-violent but repeat offenders with a history of substance abuse.

According to Dougherty Probation Director Larry Shaw, the centers provide a structured environment and drug treatment for the probationers while keeping them out of the local jails.

The DOC currently has more than a dozen centers scattered throughout the state and, at the request of local judges, is hoping to put one in the Albany metro area but lacks the funds to do it.

The options are simple.

The DOC can use an existing state building on the campus of Lee State Prison, which would provide service to probationers from both the Southwestern Judicial Circuit -- which covers multiple counties including Lee and Sumter -- and the Dougherty Circuit, which includes Dougherty County only.

Or, as the DOC has requested, such a facility could be located in Dougherty County if either the city or county can give them a building.

The primary benefit to the county would be that the center would then cater exclusively to probationers in the Dougherty Circuit.

While county officials have searched available inventory of property and found nothing suitable to meet the DOC's need, the city is in talks with property owner Bob Brooks to rent one of his buildings near downtown.

The only issue holding up the deal from the city's perspective is the lack of a consensus between the Dougherty County Commission and the city commission on how to pay the $30,000-per-year rent for the building.

County officials say they haven't had an opportunity to adequately research the DRCs to see if the proposal is one whose results would justify the cost.

The commission heard Monday from Dougherty County Jail Director John Ostrader, who said the center would likely lead to "modest savings" for the county through a reduction in the inmate population, but that the real community benefit would come in the reduction of the number of repeat offenders based on substance abuse.

"The majority of crimes in this county happen because of two fundamental problems: mental illness and substance abuse," Ostrander said. "There is no question that providing probationers who repeatedly violate that probation based on an inability to fight a drug problem with a program to get clean and get job skills will reduce our recidivist rate."

Some law enforcement officials urged the commission to take a deliberate approach to the situation and to thoroughly crunch the numbers before making a decision.

Dougherty County Police Chief Don Cheek said his concern is the supervision of the probationers once they leave the center at 5 p.m. each day.

"Who is going to keep an eye on these people once they're turned loose at 5 every day?" Cheek said. "... And I'm not so sure about the predictability here. There's a young man locked away in the jail right now who was deemed to be a nonviolent offender and who was released multiple times after violating his probation and he ended up shooting and killing one of my officers."