Georgia county pioneers intermediate drug court

Feb 12 2018

Georgia county pioneers intermediate drug court

Cobb County, Ga., recently pioneered a new kind of “intermediate” drug court, to help defendants facing lesser charges than those whose cases are handled by the county’s other “accountability courts.”

The county partnered with WestCare Georgia, an Atlanta-based addiction treatment provider, to create a program for people in the criminal justice system who previously had not been eligible for substance use disorder treatment services. The court graduated its first class of four participants, earlier this month.

The Cobb County Magistrate Court started the first drug court in the Atlanta metro area, and one of the first in the nation, in 1992. Handling non-felony substance abuse cases with an 18-month program, it now treats about 7,000 participants a year, according to Court Administrator Kristy Gaskin. The county later added other “specialty” courts for defendants with mental illness, and military veterans who are facing charges.

Gaskin said county officials hope to process about 100 defendants through the intermediate court in its first year.

Early on, someone suggested we call this program ‘Drug Court Lite,’” Cobb County Superior Court Chief Judge Tain Kell told, “but I rejected that name. This court is anything but light.”

Using research by Douglas Marlow of the University of Pennsylvania’s Treatment Research Institute, and the county’s own, evidence-based curricula, officials developed a 12-month program that includes 195 hours of treatment (the main drug court program is 18 to 24 months and 200-plus hours). Participants are required to submit to random drug screens, attend community-based support groups (CBSG), get a sponsor/mentor, and pay for their treatment. They are also required to attend psycho educational groups.

Intermediate Drug Court incorporates the same levels of supervision, testing and counseling as traditional drug court, he said. But the phases of the treatment program are somewhat shorter, and the participants spend less time in court.

Each participant will be required to submit to weekly reviews and random drug testing through four phases of the program, Superior Court Judge George Kreeger said.

“If they successfully complete the treatment after a year we will have six-month reviews of their status,” he said. “The emphasis will be on treatment, because the goal is to turn them into productive members of the community.”

Gaskin, a licensed drug abuse counselor, said the treatment component of the program will be handled by WellStar’s Windy Hill hospital. She said drug courts have become better at tracking participants and their progress. 

“When the first programs were established, a lot of them didn’t keep records on recidivism and didn’t know their rates of success, but we’ve done a lot of research before beginning this effort and will track participants from day one,” Gaskin said. “We will emphasize job training, family counseling and education and will be looking at the individual to determine why they offend and why they re-offend.”

Kell said Cobb County hopes to present a report on the program to the Council of Accountability Court Judges later this year, and determine whether other courts may be interested in the model. Georgia Governor Nathan Deal created the council in 2015 to oversee the accountability courts in Georgia and coordinate their activities.

Deal started the accountability courts in his first term as judge, to reduce jail overcrowding and help defendants become productive, taxpaying citizens.  The accountability courts helped the state avoid having to build two new prisons that officials thought would be needed.

Intermediate Drug Court is designed for those persons who have a drug problem but have not yet reached a level of ‘high risk’ in their behaviors,” Kell said. “For example, most of our participants have maintained a job and some family ties, or they have achieved some higher education. Most importantly, they have managed to stay out of serious trouble with the law, and we intend to keep it that way.”

Kell said he sees the participants once a month. “In between, they report to the program coordinator and case manager. They attend fewer weekly sessions—according to their individual needs—but they have the same amount of weekly drug testing.”

For best results, the level of monitoring and counseling should be tailored to the needs of each participant, Kell said. “Believe it or not, according to the data, you can hamper a participant’s likelihood of success by over scheduling them,” Kell said. “There is actually such a thing as ‘too much court.’”