State gathering statistics on effectiveness of drug courts

by: Erin Coleman Updated:

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ATLANTA - Georgia has 38 felony drug courts. But until this summer, there were no state standards for how the courts should operate.

Drug courts were created to give convicted felons treatment, instead of time behind bars, and to turn them into law-abiding citizens.

But the state is just now starting to gather statistics from all the drug courts to learn how many program participants graduate and how many get kicked out.

In Fulton County, which has one of the largest drug courts, 78 people graduated last year. But 192 were kicked out or dropped out. That's more than twice as many. One of those felons was Timothy Heard, a prolific downtown burglar.

Court records show Heard had been let into drug court, then kicked out, at least three different times. According to a transcript in November 2011, the judge warned Heard to behave.

"If we find you stealing and burglarizing people, you're going to prison for seven years," said Judge Doris Downs.

Heard burglarized again, but the seven-year prison sentence never happened.

This year, Heard broke into another downtown business, the Get Fruity Cafe. Owner Fred Fox was livid when he learned about Heard's prolific arrest record.

"The process itself makes me more upset than the actual crime," Fox said.

Brian Claxton is a victim of a different drug court failure. As manager of a storage facility, he watched on surveillance video as Andrew Arnett broke into units and carted off the loot. Arnett had been in jail at least 15 times before. He was sentenced to drug court and never showed up after the first day.

"It doesn't make me feel good about our court system if someone can keep going back and going back and going back and not really paying for the crimes they're committing," said Claxton.

Downs, a burglary victim herself, said we need to stop locking up people we're mad at so we can lock up people we're afraid of. Downs said drug court, done right, is supposed to be high-risk.

"If you take folks that are first offender and abusers of drugs rather that addicts, you're not going to reduce crime very much, and you're going to do a lot of spending of money on people that are unlikely to commit another crime. So you get very little bang for your buck but have a great success rate," Downs said.

In some cases, high risk can mean high reward. Johnny Dennard was an addict for 27 years. He figures he broke into a few hundred houses before he got into drug court. His neighborhood wanted him locked up.

"At the time I received drug court, there were a lot of people that didn't want me to have drug court. They made a big uproar about me, you know, using drug court, because I was a bad person," Dennard said.

Dennard has been clean more than three years. He has a job, and he's about to graduate from college. Dennard wants to become a drug counselor. He said he owes it all to drug court.

"Where would I be without it? I would be in prison right now, without it. If I wasn't in prison, I'd probably be dead," he said.

Downs remembers Dennard well.

"He is a contributor to our community and an asset to it, rather than a person that we spent $18,000 per year for 20 years to keep incarcerated, which was his other option," said Downs.

Dennard said he's proof that drug court can work.

He said, "For those who think that people ought to be just be thrown, locked away and forgotten about, I say that people can change."

It appeared, for a time, that Heard had changed. After he broke into the Get Fruity Cafe, Downs sentenced him to another drug program. Last month, he told the judge he'd completed the program.

It was a moment for celebration. Yet two days later, he was arrested for drinking in public not too far from the Get Fruity Cafe, the restaurant he had burglarized last spring.

Fox isn't surprised about the latest arrest.

"What about the victims of these crimes? I mean, I sat in court as the victim, and I had no voice," Fox said.