Accountability Courts in Henry County getting positive results
By Jason A. Smith
Accountability Courts in Henry County are turning heads locally and around the country, for helping people change their lives for the better.
L. to r.: Kerwin Henderson, Research Specialist with the BJA Drug Court Technical Assistance Project, Judge Tatsuo Okuda who was visiting from the Otsu District Court in Japan, Judge Brian Amero, Lars Levy with the School of Public Affairs of American University, Rachel Gage, Project Coordinator, Office of Accountability Courts, Judicial Council of Georgia, and retired New York Judge John Schwartz with the School of Public Affairs of American University. Special photo
Henry County District Attorney Jim Wright says one of those courts, the Felony Drug Court, helps offenders move past their mistakes toward a more productive life.
“We’re not looking for drug abusers,” says Wright. “We’re looking for drug addicts, and there is a difference.”
The Felony Drug Court is one of Henry County’s Accountability Courts, which are overseen by Superior Court. Other Account-ability Courts include DUI Court, Parental Accountability Court, and Resource Court.
Wright helped to establish Accountability Courts in Henry County several years ago. He says drug courts employ a “team approach,” involving judges, prosecutors, probation officers and surveillance officers.
Wright says his office works to distinguish abusers from addicts by examining criminal histories and other crimes as clues to determine who is best suited for the 24-month Drug Court program.
“We go ahead and sentence that individual to serve prison time, but that sentence will be suspended pending completion of a drug treatment program,” he says. “I have remained cautiously optimistic about the program. It is keeping them out of prison and opening up space for more violent offenders.”
Henry County’s Accountability Courts are financed through grant funds, and Drug Abuse Treatment Education funds which are generated from fines and forfeitures.
Superior Court Judge Brian Amero has worked with Felony Drug Court for the last five years, and oversees the Resource Court with Juvenile Court Judge William Bartles. Amero recently brought a team from American University in Washington, D.C., to evaluate Henry County’s processes for getting participants into appropriate court programs.
Amero says drug and accountability courts help families by returning fathers and mothers to children, and grandparents to grandchildren.
“Look at the way it is restoring families,” says Amero. “Think of all the social services that have to be provided to fractured families.”
Prior to become a judge, Amero worked as a prosecutor in Clayton County in the early 1990s. As such, he is no stranger to repeat offenders appearing in court.
“I would see someone sent to probation and drug counseling and would see that offender back in six months for the same charge. Then more intensive therapy and they would re-offend and then it was prison,” says Amero. “If you tell them to get voluntary treatment, they don’t, they’re addicts. What makes this program so effective is it forces them into treatment for 18 months. The reality is if we don’t deal with the underlying addiction, most of them will re-offend.”
Last month, Judge John Schwartz (ret.) and Lars Levy, each from the Justice Programs Office of the School of Public Affairs at American University visited Henry County to evaluate the local Accountability Court programs. Both men commended local officials for supporting the programs, and recommended ways to evaluate potential candidates more efficiently.
Schwartz, a retired judge from Rochester, New York, has worked with accountability courts since 1995. During his career he has overseen a Drug Court, Mental Health Court, DUI Court and a Veterans Court. Schwartz said such courts are effective tools for fighting crime.
“It’s about being smarter on crime, not just harder on crime,” says Schwartz. “Drug courts have been around since 1995 and have been studied more than any other court system in the history of the United States of America.” He said. “For every dollar a community invests, you save $6 in prison, medical and social services costs.”
Levy, a treatment provider for more than 30 years, has worked with drug court programs since 1996, including DWI Court, Re-entry Court and Juvenile Court. He says the courts help to reduce prison populations and recidivism.
Amy Kuhns is a program coordinator for the Juvenile Mental Health Court, which opened in 2013 as a 12-18 month program in Henry County. She says the program includes a combination of treatment groups and individual and family therapy to help offenders make better choices.
Kuhns touted the court for its positive impact on young offenders and their families.
“What we want to do is to make sure the children have access to treatment and service to address their mental-health issues to keep them out of jail in the future,” says Kuhns. “We’re educating not only the juveniles, but also the family members about their diagnosis and how it affects their everyday lives.”
As an example of the Mental Health Court’s success, Kuhns referenced a recent unnamed graduate of the program, who subsequently finished high school and is now attending college.
For more information on Felony Drug Court, contact Craig Ogilvie at email@example.com. For Resource Court, contact Debra Brown at 770-288-7590 or firstname.lastname@example.org.