As July arrives, Superior Court Judge Michael Muldrew becomes judge of the Bulloch County Accountability/Treatment Court program, which will now include a relaunched Drug Court as well as continuation of the Mental Health Court.
The first session under Muldrew’s jurisdiction is scheduled for July 9. In this way the Mental Health Court will continue beyond the July 31 retirement of Judge William E. Woodrum Jr., and a Drug Court, nonexistent since the retirement of Judge John R. “Robbie” Turner as a regular Superior Court judge in December 2016, will resume its work.
“If it was going to happen I was going to be the one to do it, so I was glad to do it,” Muldrew said in a recent interview. “We’re going to have, actually, an accountability court which will include Mental Health Court and Drug Court.”
As an alternative to jail or prison, these programs hold participants accountable for remaining in treatment and completing life skills classes, staying drug-free and avoiding further arrests. Sometimes holding a job is also part of the court’s prescription.
Woodrum, chief judge of the Superior Courts in the four-county Ogeechee Judicial Circuit, has served as judge over Bulloch County’s Mental Health Court since it was launched four and a half years ago.
Earlier, Turner led in founding and then presided over a drug court program in Bulloch County for 12 years and also in Effingham County for 10 years, until his retirement. Judge F. Gates Peed, who will now become chief judge of the circuit, has not taken an active role in the accountability court programs.
Elected as Turner’s successor on the Superior Court bench, Muldrew began his term in January 2017. He had expressed willingness to restart the Drug Court program, but could not do so his first year as a judge, when he heard only civil cases. The year gave cases he had handled as a prosecutor time to work through the courts.
But he has been hearing criminal cases since Jan. 1, and July 1 is the start of the new fiscal year.
“Hopefully, we will reduce the recidivist rate and provide some needed services for people suffering from mental illness and from addiction so that they don’t find themselves repeatedly getting in trouble with the law, violating the law,” Muldrew said. “We’re trying to keep them from having to just go through a revolving door of incarceration.”
The transition also brings the relaunched Drug Court under the responsibilities of Karen McClain as Bulloch County’s grant-funded accountability court coordinator. She has been the Mental Health Court coordinator since it started. But Judge Turner’s secretary served as unpaid administrator of the previous Drug Court, which operated independently of the state-funded program.
For fiscal year 2019, Bulloch County has been awarded $166,647 in funding through the Georgia Criminal Justice Coordinating Council for the program that will now include both the mental health and drug court programs. With the county supplying 10 percent of the total, or $18,516, as a required match, the available funding adds up to $185,163, McClain reported. The state grant reimburses the county government for things such as participants’ court-required drug testing, classes and prescribed medications, as well as her salary.
Participants report to court usually on a monthly basis, although the Mental Health Court previously met twice each month. At each court date, a team made up of the judge, the court coordinator, representatives of the district attorney’s and public defenders’ offices, the sheriff’s department, probation programs, Pineland Behavioral Health-Developmental Disabilities and the community check on participants’ progress.
Not for everyone
This court team also reviews prospective participants among individuals who have mental health or substance abuse problems and are facing felony charges in Superior Court or misdemeanor charges in State Court.
But District Attorney Richard Mallard gets the first say on whether defendants can be considered. Those with current charges or previous convictions for murder, armed robbery, rape, aggravated sodomy, aggravated sexual battery or child molestation are not eligible. Additionally, the Drug Court path will be for people who are primarily users with addiction problems, and the district attorney will seek to distinguish these from defendants facing serious distribution or trafficking charges, McClain said.
Successful participants usually remain under the special court’s supervision for one year for misdemeanor charges or two years when the primary charge is a felony.
Since October 2013 when the Bulloch County Mental Health Court enrolled its first participants, 40 have been accepted and 20 have graduated. For various reasons, 14 enrollees were terminated from the program. At this point, only six are enrolled, including one who graduated June 11 but is now in an after-care program, McClain said.
In the past the Mental Health Court had as many 18 participants at one time, but the court team stopped enrolling new participants several months ago to prepare for the transition, she said.
The state funding for Bulloch County’s overall program has not increased significantly for the restart of the Drug Court. For the fiscal year that ends Saturday, the state grant was already $163,814, requiring a local match of $18,202.
At this point the Drug Court portion has no participants, until the team selects some who agree to the court’s expectations. Muldrew said some participants may be identified by July 9. Otherwise, the program will hold only a Mental Health Court session that day.
Both in one day
The plan for now is to hold both courts, one after the other, on a single day each month, with mostly the same court team working with both.
“We’ve found that in Mental Health Court you’re not only fighting mental health issues but you’re fighting the drug issues,” Woodrum said.
He counted the creation of the Mental Health Court among accomplishments from his more than 22-year tenure as a Superior Court judge and said he expects the number of participants to rise rapidly with the addition of a drug court.
“That’s where the cases are,” Woodrum said.
When the numbers pick up, the program will return to two sessions a month, McClain said.
“We are in discussions with Screven, Jenkins and Effingham counties to see if they would like to participate also,” Muldrew said.
Adding other counties could later result in additional state funding, but the counties would incur some costs for transportation to the court site and services for their participants, he said.
Herald reporter Al Hackle may be reached at (912) 489-9458.