You remember drug courts, right? The alternative to sentencing addicts to expensive jail sentences, cheaper than traditional lock-em-up approach to crimes of drug use, designed to turn drug abusers into productive citizens instead of ex-cons? Governor Deal touted them in January. His son runs one in Hall County. Supreme Court Justice Carol Hunstein supports them. Creative Loafing has noticed, and so has Jim Galloway. Democrats and Republicans alike hail them as a better way to deal with the drug problem and save the taxpayers money.
Except, apparently, in Glynn County Georgia.
The radio program “This American Life” recently highlighted the unusual aspects of Glynn County’s drug court. It’s the most outrageous and important 59 minutes you’ll listen to this year. Do so HERE. Podcast version available HERE. Transcript HERE.
The Glynn/Camden Drug Court is run by Judge Amanda Williams, and is unlike any other drug court in Georgia, or the nation for that matter. How? For starters, there’s no such thing as probation for drug offenses in Glynn County, and hasn’t been since Judge Williams began the drug court. If you’re charged with a drug offense –first offense, personal use, any drug offense- your bail is set at $15,000. Since small-time drug offenders are generally outside the demographic that can swing a $15,000 bond, and don’t want to stay in jail any more than anyone else does, they “choose” drug court. Some meetings, some counseling, weekly drug tests and they’ll be out in a year and a half, based on the national average. Who wouldn’t choose drug court over jail time? As a result, Glynn County (population 79,000) has more people enrolled in drug court than Fulton County (population > 1 million).
But Amanda Williams’ drug court is different. In the case of Lindsey Dills -a high school senior who fell in with the wrong crowd, started using drugs, and wound up in Judge Williams’ drug court for forging $100 worth of checks from her father’s account- it’s turned into more than 5 and ½ years in drug court, 14 months behind bars, then another 5 years and 6 more months behind bars –then 4 years of probation. Doesn’t sound like the taxpayers saved any money in that case.
Amanda Williams’ drug court sentences are exceptionally harsh. The national average for someone who resumes using drugs during their drug court sentence is 12 or 24 hours for a first relapse, and only after other methods (warnings, fines, extra monitoring) haven’t worked. In Georgia drug courts, it’s a day or two in jail on a first relapse. In Judge Williams’ drug court, it’s 3 days for a first relapse. Then seven. Then 28. Then? Indefinite.
You read that right: People in Georgia are being sentenced to indefinite stays in jail –not in Libya, or Turkey, or by some fake general in a third-world banana republic, but by Amanda Williams, Chief Judge of the Superior Court of the Brunswick Circuit. The court records say indefinite means “until further order of the court,” which can mean a couple of months, or sometimes longer, or “until they get a better attitude,” or “until I’m ready for you,” as the Judge is reported to say. If Judge Williams goes on vacation and doesn’t feel like seeing you again until after Christmas, after your anti-depressant meds have run out, and you’re in solitary confinement not permitted contact with friends, family or anyone, well then you can just kill yourself. Which is what Lindsey Dills tried to do in December of 2008.
According to the National Association of Drug Court Professionals, this is not how drug courts are supposed to work. They are designed to reduce drug use, reduce crime, repair families, hold addicts accountable and restore them to meaningful roles in society. When they work, they do that cheaper and more effectively than the traditional justice system. But to work, addicts in drug courts need intensive treatment, close supervision and frequent appearances in court, so a judge can monitor their progress. A judge who relies on punishment in drug court doesn’t understand the concept of drug court, doesn’t understand addiction and doesn’t care about saving money. And a judge who blithely locks people away indefinitely has clearly gone Captain Queeg crazy.
Judges have a lot of power, and drug court judges have even more. That power, virtually unchecked, is a serious weakness in the drug court system. Judge Williams has been on the bench since 1990 and was easily re-elected last fall. She has her detractors, but has run the drug court in Glynn County since its inception in 1998. It belongs to her, as it should, since no decent Georgian would wish to lay any claim to it. Decent Georgians hope and pray the Glynn County drug court is an exception to well-run, professionally managed such courts in our State, and that Judge Williams is an outlier among Georgia judges with better judicial temperaments and the character to be trusted with judicial authority.
H/T to the Atlanta Law Blog, for pointing out the radio episode.