Accountability Courts: What They Are and What They Do

Written by Raiana Kelly

Accountability court is a criminal justice reform initiative started in the 1990s that aims to provide effective alternatives to sentencing for nonviolent offenders, reduce the prison population, and reduce recidivism. Accountability courts treat nonviolent offenders who suffer from mental illness, addiction, or other health issues using a therapeutic model combined with traditional judicial practices to address the underlying cause of illegal behavior. According to the Georgia Political Review, the first accountability court in Georgia was established in 1994. Since then, the initiative has spread across the state. Georgia now has over 150 accountability courts with various focuses and nearly 10,000 participants. In Athens, there are six different accountability courts: The DUI/Drug Court, Family Dependency and Treatment Court, Felony Drug Court, Parental Accountability Court, Treatment and Accountability Court, and Veterans Court. 

In order to be a participant in one of the accountability court programs, nonviolent offenders are first referred to the appropriate court by the district attorney’s office. If they choose to participate, they are enrolled into the program. Once enrolled, participants are screened to determine their addiction or mental illness and the court then creates a plan of action. 

The DUI/Drug Court is available for participants who have received two or more DUI charges. This court is an opportunity for early treatment intervention and includes enhanced supervision, counseling, and treatment plans for the participants. The DUI/Drug Court is overseen by judges, the solicitor general, law enforcement, the local bar association, the public defender’s office, a court coordinator, probation officer, and licensed substance abuse treatment professionals. Under the DUI/Drug Accountability Court, participants enroll in a 14-month program that consists of four phases: extended assessment, treatment and early recovery, relapse prevention, and recovery management. 

Implemented in 2013 under the direction of Juvenile Court Judge Robin Shearer, the Family Dependency Treatment Court is for those who are facing termination of their parental rights through the Division of Family and Children’s Services. This is a 12-18 month program that aims to break the cycle of addiction and resulting neglect, limit foster care stays, address and influence substance abuse in deprivation cases, and to facilitate family reunification. This program also includes active case management from coordinated treatment and social services teams, individualized assessment, and comprehensive substance abuse and behavioral health treatment plans. 

The Felony Drug Court is a treatment alternative for felony offenders and those charged with probation violations in the Superior Courts of Athens-Clarke and Oconee counties, and second or subsequent DUI offenders in Oconee county probate court. This program lasts 18-24 months and includes individual counseling, group therapy, education, monitoring, and regular drug testing. 

The Parental Accountability Court is a partnership between the Superior Court judges and the Department of Human Services (DHS) Division of Child Support Services and is provided as an alternative to incarceration for those that regularly do not make child-support payments. This program uses community resources to identify and address the barriers that prevent parents from meeting their support obligations. The services offered within this program include volunteer work opportunities, literacy training, job assistance and placement, mental health services, clinical assessments, substance abuse treatment, coaching and mentoring, and more. 

The Treatment and Accountability Court is presided by Superior Court Judge Eric Norris and provides a probation alternative for those who have been charged with nonviolent criminal offenses that were caused by their mental illness or mental disability. Those who are eligible and agree to participate claim responsibility for the criminal charge, follow a personalized treatment plan that addresses their mental health issue and/or substance abuse problem, and submit to close monitoring by the coordinator. 

Returning veterans often find themselves dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), substance abuse problems, or other mental health issues that result in criminal behavior, and The Veterans Court provides supervision and treatment to individuals whose crimes have stemmed from their status as a veteran. This court is administered by the Superior Court with supplemental services provided by the United States Department of Veterans Affairs. 

The judges who preside over accountability courts have several responsibilities. The Council of Accountability Court Judges (CACJ) establishes operating standards that align with the federal 10 key components of drug courts and best practices based on national research. These standards are then the basis for certification, peer review, and funding. In order to receive state grant funding, all accountability courts must have their certification renewed every two years. However, in some cases, courts can receive a certification waiver and still apply for grant funding but must provide additional information in order to receive full certification. 

The CACJ offers and manages state grants for local accountability courts, and there are three grant opportunities offered throughout the year: a fiscal operating grant, a supplemental grant, and an emergency grant. Applications for the grants are assembled by the court and submitted by the county in which the court operates. In addition to the state grants, accountability courts also receive funding from county funds, participant fees, and other independent funds. 

Each state is required to conduct a peer review every three years. The team for a peer review includes a judge, a court coordinator, a clinician or treatment provider, and a CACJ staff member that each represent the same type of court being evaluated. The CACJ also conducts performance tracking every quarter from each accountability court in order to monitor and improve program outcomes, efficiency, and overall court effectiveness. 

In terms of their outcomes, accountability courts have been successful in their goal to reduce recidivism and reduce the economic impacts of incarceration. According to a report from the University of Georgia’s Carl Vinson Institute of Government, the recidivism rate for participants of accountability courts are 10-17 percent lower than nonparticipants. According to a study conducted by Applied Research Services, Inc., any amount of participation in accountability courts leads to lower recidivism rates, regardless of whether the participant graduates from the program. In 2017, more than 1,700 people graduated from accountability courts in Georgia, saving the state nearly $5,000 per person as compared to the cost of incarceration.

However, there are some drawbacks to the program. It may be difficult for some participants to attend their individual counseling and/or group therapy sessions if it interferes with their work schedule. Additionally, there are fees or other costs associated with participation in any of the accountability court programs, which could prove difficult for low-income families. Furthermore, it’s unclear whether drug tests are included in the participant’s fees or if it’s an additional cost for the participant to cover. 

According to the Center for Prisoner Health and Human Rights, approximately half of all individuals in prisons or jails are suffering from some form of mental illness or substance abuse problem, and most of these individuals relapse when they return to the community. Accountability courts aim to remedy this situation and have been largely successful in reducing recidivism rates by addressing the underlying cause of illegal behavior through a more therapeutic approach than traditional judicial practices alone.

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