New Georgia drug court to begin this fall

New Georgia drug court to begin this fall

February 19th, 2017 by Tyler Jett in Local Regional News

Staff Photo by Dan Henry / The Chattanooga Times Free Press- 11/21/16. Judge Tom Greenholtz begins the fall drug court graduation in his courtroom in Hamilton County on Monday, November 21, 2016. While law enforcement officials first thought they could open the program in North Georgia in summer 2018, they are now slated to begin operations this fall, Lookout Mountain Judicial Circuit Superior Court Judge Don Thompson said.

Photo by Dan Henry /Times Free Press.

Don Thompson, superior court judge in the Lookout Mountain Judicial Circuit

Don Thompson, superior court judge in the Lookout...

Photo by Contributed Photo /Times Free Press.

Drug court is coming to North Georgia sooner than expected.

While law enforcement officials first thought they could open the program in summer 2018, they are now slated to begin operations this fall, Lookout Mountain Judicial Circuit Superior Court Judge Don Thompson said. The reason? It turns out there's more state grant money available than first thought.

Thompson said the local judges have already applied for funding through the Criminal Justice Coordinating Council. Though they still don't know how expensive a drug court will be here, they expect money to begin rolling in on July 1. They can then start hiring staff members, preparing them to handle defendants when a second round of funding comes through in September or October.

A drug court is a program targeting addicts. Rather than sending them to jail, prosecutors give them the option to enroll in the program. They then have to attend counseling and classes about addiction. They also have to hold a job and are subject to drug tests every day. A failed test leads to punishment, at the judge's discretion.

Since he took office in 2011, Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal has been a proponent of accountability courts like these. His own son a drug court judge, Deal believes the program keeps low-risk criminals out of expensive prisons and increases their chances of recovering from addiction.

Since he took office, he has increased the amount of state funding available to local jurisdictions wanting to run accountability courts from $2.7 million to $23 million. But the Lookout Mountain Judicial Circuit, which covers Catoosa, Chattooga, Dade and Walker counties, has been one of two jurisdictions to stay away from the specialty courts.

"We've made a lot of progress and am really looking forward to having everything up and running," Thompson said. "Everybody's on board. The district attorney's completely on board. Same with our public defender, all of our sheriffs."

Jon "Bo" Wood, the circuit's former chief judge, was against the program, believing it turned judges into social workers. But Wood retired at the end of September.

Last week, the local judges met with Criminal Justice Coordinating Council Executive Director Jay Neal, who used to represent LaFayette in the state Legislature, as well as Jason Deal, the governor's son. They discussed how to run a drug court.

When the first money comes in, Thompson said, the judges will have to hire a staff, beginning with a coordinator who will handle the system's day-to-day operations. They will also need to form partnerships with local counselors and rehab programs.

Public Defender David Dunn said local officials have not yet determined who specifically will qualify for the program. In Whitfield and Murray counties, for example, defendants are eligible if they have been arrested for drug-related crimes. That can be drug possession, but it can also be other offenses like burglary or public intoxication. The only catch is that the defendants can't have a violent criminal record.

Local officials also don't yet know how many defendants the program will take in. Thompson said they will start small. But with time, they hope to build up to 75 defendants. In Whitfield and Murray counties, the judge will see 85 defendants.

Thompson will run the program along with Judge Brian House, who said each of them will see defendants once a month. They will split duties in case one of them can't attend a specific court date. A judge needs a rapport with the defendants to know how to properly punish them.

For example, if a defendant has skipped three counseling sessions, the judge may want to put him in jail for a week, to make sure he complies with the program. The punishment for missing one session, on the other hand, would be lighter.

"We really don't want these people to fail," House said. "But you may have people who are destined to fail on their own. We want to be consistent."

Once drug court is running, Thompson and House said, the circuit could add some other accountability courts, like ones dedicated to people with mental illnesses or military veterans.

Contact staff writer Tyler Jett at 423-757-6476 or Follow him on Twitter @LetsJett.