Superior Court Judge Jason Deal estimates that nearly 90 percent of the cases he hears in the Northeastern Judicial Circuit involve a dependency on drugs.
“It may not actually be that high, but it seems like drugs are a component in almost every case,” said Deal, who presides over the drug and alcohol treatment courts in Dawson and Hall counties.
As a result, Deal and Dawson County leaders have worked to expand the current treatment courts to include nonviolent offenders arrested while trying to support their habits.
“There are plenty of people out there that know a child stealing from their parents or breaking into neighbors’ homes,” he said. “The families know they have a drug problem, but they have nowhere to turn.”
The suspects may be charged with theft by taking, but authorities know that drugs were the motivation.
Details of the new program, which is not open to those charged with violent or sex crimes, are still being ironed out.
“It may take us a few weeks to identify these first participants, because it’s going to take more investigating by the DA’s office to see who on file may be eligible,” Deal said.
“We’re trying to make sure we are dealing with folks with addictions with the ultimate goal to get them off drugs and back to being productive citizens of the community, rather than taking away from it,” he said.
Deal cited a young man who stole from his grandmother to feed his cravings or to pay the bills after spending all his money on drugs.
“Grandma doesn’t want Johnny to go to jail,” he said. “She just wants him to get help. This will give families another option.”
Dawson County Sheriff Billy Carlisle said he has seen the benefits of jail, but also knows that incarceration “doesn’t always work.”
“They’re being put in jail with professional criminals that teach them how to be better criminals when they get out,” he said. “The system doesn’t work.”
Unlike the county’s drug treatment program, which is an alternative to jail if offenders complete 24 months of treatment, the property crimes program would require a referral from the district attorney’s office.
Carlisle said he is not worried that defense attorneys may try to use the new program as a “cop-out” for their clients.
Participants would have to undergo medical and psychological evaluations that determine if they are dependent on drugs.
“We just opened this jail a little over a year ago, and we’re full with over 200 inmates,” Carlisle said. “Until we do something to rehabilitate and get these people straightened out, we’ll continue building new jails.”
Nancy Stites, a member of the Dawson County Meth Task Force, sat on Deal’s steering committee. She said the task force has looked at ways to reach those who suffer from chemical dependency to offer life skills assistance and aid in recovery.
“We are so in support of this program,” she said. “We know so much of crime, the basis, is because of drugs. This program focuses on the real problem at hand and helps.”
Treatment in the property crimes would include group and individual meetings and constant monitoring through drug screenings three to four times each week, for a minimum of 24 months.E-mail Michele Hester at firstname.lastname@example.org.