ALBANY — Accountability courts that steer people with underlying mental health and drug abuse issues away from jail and into treatment programs are changing lives and also saving taxpayer dollars, a Dougherty County Superior Court judge said Thursday.
Dougherty County was the first in Georgia to take that approach and now that the state if has followed suit it has saved millions, Judge Victoria Darrisaw told the Albany Rotary Club during a luncheon meeting at Doublegate Country Club.
“The last numbers I received, it cost over $54 a day to keep someone in the Dougherty County Jail,” she said. “That does not include the cost of medical (care), because while you’re in Dougherty County Jail you’re our baby.
“To the extent we can keep people out of this jail, that’s money we don’t have to spend on them.”
There are five types of accountability courts — drug court, mental health, veteran’s court, DUI court and family court — of which Dougherty County has the first two.
“Many times a person who has an underlying mental health issue will self-medicate with drugs, so they go together,” Darrisaw said.
As a former prosecutor, Darrisaw said she initially had the same opinion as many others in the community, that if someone does the crime he ought to do the time. But since becoming involved in the process she said she has seen the benefits.
Those benefits include keeping a person who otherwise would be sitting in a county jail or prison at home with family and earning a living to support them.
“The reason they work is it’s tougher to be in the program than it is to be on regular probation,” she said. “The goal is to rehabilitate, to produce tax-paying citizens who can provide for their families.”
Darrisaw had no figures for the county, but statewide as of Fiscal Year 2017 each successful graduate of an accountability court meant a $22,000 benefit to the state in terms of money saved due to not having to keep an inmate behind bars. The total savings were estimated at $38 million through that time.
For those who successfully complete drug court across the state, less than 27% reoffend, she said.
A combination of factors contributed to an influx of people with mental health issues flooding jails, she said. That includes the closing of state mental health facilities.
At one point spending on incarceration reached $1 billion and was projected to grow well beyond that amount, and this is when Georgia decided to give alternative programs a chance. Beyond accountability courts, the state also initiated programs to train inmates for work after prison and to prepare them for life after the end of incarceration.
Sitting behind the bench, Darrisaw said she sees cases where lives are being turned around. She gave as an example people who arrive in court exhibiting the physical signs of a methamphetamine addiction who return to productive lives.
“You see their development over time,” she said. “They’re getting employment, you see families coming back together.
“There are people throughout the state who are making a difference to change lives, and that’s happening in this community. I’m not a touchy-feely person, but not that I see it, I see why people do it.”