Bulloch County’s accountability courts program, which includes an active mental health court and recently a drug court being revived under Superior Court Judge Michael T. Muldrew, has now been opened up to serve all four counties of the Ogeechee Judicial Circuit.
Karen McClain, previously Bulloch County Accountability/Treatment Court coordinator, announced the expansion in mid-August and is now coordinator of the renamed Ogeechee Circuit Mental Health/Drug Court.
The circuit includes the Superior Courts of Bulloch, Effingham, Jenkins and Screven counties, but the accountability court program previously operated only in Bulloch County under a state grant specifically through the county.
“We've been wanting to go circuit-wide for a while, and Judge Muldrew was in agreement with implementing programs in the other counties as well,” McClain said in an interview. “I'm sure the hope of the state is they want all accountability courts to be offered circuit-wide, so we finally got that done and have an agreement struck with the other counties, and we're offering it now."
These programs offer selected defendants who are facing criminal charges and also have a mental health diagnosis or a drug abuse problem an opportunity to avoid further jail or prison time.
Participants enter a contract with the court to remain in treatment, which often means attending support groups as well as taking any prescribed medications, and to stay free of abused drugs and submit to drug testing. The court often requires participants to take life skills and coping classes, and can impose job or education requirements.
A team that includes representatives of the district attorney’s and public defenders’ offices, the county sheriff’s office, probation programs and a treatment services agency, as well as McClain and judge, meets before each court session to consider participants’ progress and compliance. This team also reviews candidates for enrollment.
Participants facing felony charges can graduate after two years; those with only misdemeanor charges, typically after one year.
But defendants 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 is for people with addiction problems, not those facing serious distribution or trafficking charges, McClain has said. The district attorney gets a deciding say on who can participate.
Both Bulloch County and Effingham County previously had drug court programs operated for more than a decade by Judge John R. “Robbie” Turner, but these ended when Turner retired as a regular Superior Court judge at the end of 2016. Meanwhile, Judge William E. Woodrum Jr. presided over Bulloch County’s mental health court, officially the “Accountability/Treatment Court,” from its launch in the fall of 2013 until his retirement July 31.
Muldrew, elected in 2016 to succeed Turner on the Superior Court bench, had said he was willing to restart the drug court, but he was unable to do so until this year. Then, with Woodrum retiring, Muldrew agreed to take over as the mental health court judge and to relaunch the drug court in combination with it.
This brought the drug court under Bulloch County’s accountability court grant from the Georgia Criminal Justice Coordinating Council.
Counties to share
Muldrew confirmed that the combined program is now being offered to the other three counties under the same state grant, but with all four counties to share in paying the 10 percent local funding share.
“We’re excited about being able to provide more participants with the opportunity to receive the help they need,” he said.
Total funding under the grant for the current fiscal year, which began July 1, remains $185,163. This includes $166,647 from the state agency plus a required match of $18,516, or 10 percent of the total, required from local sources.
First Judicial District Court Administrator Richard Denney helped work out the agreement for the four counties to divide the local cost on the basis of their populations, McClain said. The population shares of the circuit are 47 percent Bulloch County, 38 percent Effingham County, 9 percent Screven County and 6 percent Jenkins County.
That appears to reduce Bulloch County’s required contribution to about $8,700 for the year.
“We appreciate Bulloch County for being the lead county, and they’re also basically the sponsor processing all the grants and making sure the money is handled appropriately, which has really been a big help to the court and a big help to all the other counties,” Muldrew said.
County commissioners in Effingham and Screven counties approved in July, and Screven County’s approval arrived in August, McClain said.
For now, any participants from the other counties will be coming to Bulloch for the special court sessions. But the court could eventually meet in other counties if their participation grows, Muldrew and McClain said. With more participants, the size of the grant and required local share could also increase in future years.
Pineland Behavioral Health-Developmental Disabilities, headquartered in Statesboro, has worked closely with the mental health court in providing services to participants in Bulloch County.
The other Ogeechee Circuit counties are in two different behavioral health districts. Effingham County is served by Gateway Behavioral Health Services. The Ogeechee Behavioral Health Division of the Community Service Board of Middle Georgia serves Jenkins and Screven.
But some residents of these counties receive services from Pineland, often because they also come to Statesboro for shopping or employment, said Pineland BHDD Executive Director June DiPolito. She had sent out an email welcoming the accountability court program’s expansion.
“It’s important that we’re giving people the opportunity for treatment in lieu of incarceration where it’s appropriate,” she said in a phone interview. “I feel like it’s better for the individuals and then too in the end it’s better for us as taxpayers because we’re not keeping them in more costly confinement when they can be out being contributing members of society.”
The program does hold participants accountable, she added.
“They’re coming before the judge on a regular basis, they have treatment mandated, and so it’s better than having someone out there maybe not keeping their appointments and not taking their medicines,” DiPolito said. “This way we know that they are.”
Bulloch County’s mental health court accepted 40 participants from late 2013 through last spring, and 20 have graduated. Over the years 14 have been terminated from the program for various reasons.
Just six participants remained in the mental health court program during the transition from Woodrum to Muldrew, and the drug court, just relaunched, had no current participants.
But two Bulloch County participants are ready to be admitted to the drug court program Sept. 10, the only session of the special courts this month, McClain said. There could be up to six more new participants if their criminal hearings are done in time, she said.
One Jenkins County resident and one Effingham County resident are now being evaluated for admission to the programs. With other cases to be reviewed, the drug court alone could grow to about 16 participants in the next two months, she said.
Beginning in October, the programs will expand to two court days a month, with the drug court and mental health court meeting at different times on the same day, said Muldrew and McClain.
Herald reporter Al Hackle may be reached at (912) 489-9458.