The scene within the Bulloch County Courthouse was a courtroom drama of a different sort Tuesday, when the Bulloch County DUI Court honored its first graduating class since the program began about one year ago.
Two graduates, who just months ago were facing extended jail sentences for repeat DUI offenses, were celebrated for a year-long commitment to alcohol abuse treatment and wished well on new, sober lives.
John “J.J” Crawford and Madison Southerlin were presented with certificates of completion and medallions commemorating their success in a packed courtroom chambers filled with friends, family, other program participants, court staff and local and state representatives.
The new alumni became the first of an original nine participants to complete the post-conviction, treatment-based program that vies to prevent habitual DUI offenders from ever again getting behind the wheel while under the influence.
“I really don’t know what to say other than thank you for the opportunity,” Crawford said, when presented with the honors. “This program has guided me in a direction that changed my life and given me a new hope.”
“[I have] nothing but good things to say about this program,” he said.
The commencement ceremony also served as an unofficial one-year anniversary for the DUI Court, which began working with its first group of offenders in November last year.
“It has been a really interesting experience. It has been an extraordinary journey for all of us,” said Bulloch County Judge Gary Mikell, who oversees the program. “As we’ve gone through this experience together, the group has started to have a family feel. We have had births, marriages, found jobs and lost jobs. We have had ups and downs, smooth roads and rocky roads. It’s been great.”
DUI Court Program
The court program, which requires a minimum of one year to complete, offers individuals convicted of multiple DUI offenses supervision, counseling, testing and treatment for alcohol addiction with intensive judicial oversight, he said.
Its ultimate goal: achieving the sobriety of participants to prevent future DUI charges.
“We were taught in our training for operating a DUI court that 80 percent of people who get their first DUI never get another one. They do their service, pay their fine and say they have had enough of it,” Mikell said. “Of those that do eventually get a second DUI, 80 percent go on to have a third, fourth or more. That stat shows how this is an effective program because it targets a group that needs to be targeted.”
According to the judge, participants must consistently meet daily, weekly and monthly treatment requirements, while remaining sober and abiding by various rules — operating under a curfew and avoiding select alcohol-serving locations.
The group continuously meets with the DUI Court team — Judge, Solicitor-General, Defense Attorney, Treatment Provider, Probation Officer and DUI Court Coordinator — and routinely undergoes alcohol and drug screenings.
Individuals not meeting requirements are sanctioned — sanctions range from stricter requirements to additional jail time — and can be terminated from the program.
The incentives for members to participate, aside from ridding themselves a dependency on alcohol, are reduced jail time, a fine reduction and the ability to defer fine payment, Mikell said.
“It is an alternative [to longer sentences],” he said. “That is what this is about, trying to keep jails not as full with non-violent offenders.”
“At the Bulloch County jail, it is $45 a day to house an inmate,” said Mikell. “If you have someone out there for 90 days — the minimum sentence for a second DUI offense — that costs $4,050. To hold them for a year, it costs $16, 425.”
According to Mikell, the program saves monies that would be used to jail offenders and requires nothing in return from taxpayers.
“With the way we have modeled the costs, people pay about $240 per month. In training it was pointed out that anybody that has gotten into this situation is likely spending at least that amount of money on alcohol. So, it is financially possible for anybody,” he said. “This is a program that does not burden the taxpayer. Participants pay their treatment fees, they pay a probation fee, eventually they pay the fines, and the county saves the expenses for keeping them in jail.”
In one year’s time, the DUI Court family has grown to include 47 members that range in ages from less than 21 years old to more than 40.
According to Mikell, the program is one of just 18 in Georgia — it was the 16th court of its kind when kicking off last year.
Interest in similar “accountability courts” is growing throughout the state.
Per the order of Gov. Nathan Deal, in the interest of controlling the growth of prison costs, a recent panel of state legislators conducted a report on criminal justice reforms for Georgians.
The report places an emphasis on “expanding the number of accountability courts currently operating” — drug, DUI and mental health courts — that offer alternative sentencing and treatment programs to nonviolent offenders.
“Hearts and minds are powerful instruments for good and bad and for positive and negative. They dictate so much of what people’s lives are all about,” said State Senator Jack Hill, who attended Tuesday’s ceremony. “Our ability to influence those and turn them in the right direction is so much more important than a punishment that probably would not do that.”
“One of the things that I have seen in my experience in looking at these courts is that they focus on is changing hearts and minds. That is the most powerful influence you can have,” he said. “I just salute leadership here and around the state for taking this project on and making it happen. I salute you for helping to change those coming through this system.”
According Mikell, six of the original nine members are expected to graduate the program — two were terminated, the other elected to instead serve a full jail sentence once reviewing the program requirements.
“That is a 67 percent success rate. Generally, the statistics show that 70-80 percent of people will make it through the program,” he said. “The team becomes emotionally involved with the lives and success of our participants. So, we would never be satisfied with anything less than 100 percent. But, 67 percent is certainly better than success rates in the past. So, we are pleased. It has been very worth-while. We are doing something that makes a difference in people’s lives.”
Jeff Harrison may be reached at (912) 489-9454.