TRENTON, Ga. — North Georgia judicial candidates on Thursday debated the best ways to help drug addicts.
Incumbent Ralph Van Pelt Jr. took the lead-a-horse-to-water technique. You bring a case to court, let the evidence play out, let a jury reach a verdict. If a defendant is guilty, and if that defendant is interested, you sentence him to a state-run substance abuse treatment center — that is, if his insurance or family can't cover the plan.
"Drug cases are something that are always going to be with us," he said during a debate Thursday night at the Dade County Public Library. "People continue to get addicted."
The best way to improve the problem? Van Pelt said the state should fund more substance abuse treatment centers, allowing people to get in faster rather than waiting for a couple of months in jail.
Van Pelt's challenger, Melissa Hise, believes the court system could be more aggressive. In particular, she pointed to accountability courts, a top priority of outgoing Gov. Nathan Deal. (From 2012-2016, state funding for these courts increased from $2.7 million to $23 million.)
The Lookout Mountain Judicial Circuit was one of the last regions in the state without an accountability court. But the judges implemented their first one last year, a drug court.
Hise, the founder of Four Points, a supervised visitation center for families, said the judges should bring more specialty courts to the region. She said they are already implementing a mental health court and a parental accountability court, which is supposed to work closely with parents who struggle to pay child support. She also wants to create a veterans court.
"We need to do more in doing our sentencing and our supervision so that we are addressing individual problems, instead of doing the same cookie-cutter thing that we've been doing all this time," she said.
The candidates will face each other in the May 22 election. The judge's race is nonpartisan. Van Pelt is a veteran in the circuit, practicing here since 1980. He worked as an assistant prosecutor, defense attorney and district attorney before Gov. Zell Miller appointed him to the superior court bench in 1996.
In addition to her work with Four Points, Hise has more recently worked in the Palmour Law Firm in Summerville, Ga. She said she practices primarily family law, but she has also worked real estate and employment discrimination cases. (She previously told the Times Free Press that she has never been the lead attorney on a jury trial.)
Hise said her experience operating Four Points, a nonprofit, for 15 years prepares her to implement more accountability courts.
"I have the ability to help get these programs off the ground," she said. "To get them stable; to make sure that they're done correctly."
Van Pelt argued that his 22 years on the bench make him more effective.
"I'm fair," he said. "Every lawyer in this circuit knows I'll sit and listen until you're done talking. And I will hear people out. And then I will make a decision based on what the evidence and what the law is. That's what you have to do."
The two candidates also differed over term limits.
"There's this thing called elections that are term limits," Van Pelt said.
Hise said she initially was not in favor of limits like that. But while campaigning, she met with voters who believe judges should not sit on the bench for too long.
Ultimately, a decision on an issue like that rests in the Legislature, she said.
"You need new people coming in with new ideas and fresher ideas to keep you moving and to keep you from getting stagnant," she said.
A term limit would also affect the circuit's chief judge, Kristina Cook Graham, who has sat on the bench since 1992.
Local station KWN-TV hosted Thursday's debate.
Contact staff writer Tyler Jett at 423-757-6476 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @LetsJett.