Wed., June 27, 2012 12:00pm (EDT)

Inside Georgia's Criminal Justice Law
By Parker Wallace
Updated: 2 years ago

ATLANTA  —  
Katie Fitzmorris celebrates graduation from Gwinnett County's drug court program with her daughter, Ansley Lewis. With the help of the state program, Fitzmorris has been sober since October 9, 2010.
Katie Fitzmorris celebrates graduation from Gwinnett County's drug court program with her daughter, Ansley Lewis. With the help of the state program, Fitzmorris has been sober since October 9, 2010.
For every $1 spent on a drug court, more than two dollars are saved in criminal justice costs. That's according to the National Drug Court Institute. That kind of savings is what added momentum to this year’s sweeping sentencing reform legislation in Georgia.

The new law is projected to save the state tens of millions of dollars in correctional spending. But concern remains about upfront costs of putting the law in place.

Like any graduation ceremony — thundering applause generates excitement --- a palpable sense of anticipation about next steps.

But for these six graduates, their coursework has been rehabilitation. Their curriculum has been recovery. Between them, they have a combined 3,603 sober days:

“We learned so much from each other. And we can commend one another when we’re doing right, and we can call each other out when we’re not doing so great, and that’s where the growth comes in.”

26 year old Katie Fitzmorris is from Gwinnett County. Eighteen months ago, a judge ordered her into this program to finally confront a decade-long methamphetamine addiction.

Fitzmorris had already lost custody of her daughter and was living with her drug dealer to support her habit. And she was a regular in the justice system, getting locked up numerous times for minor offenses:

“I was so broken down enough that I was willing to listen, and willing to try anything knew to change my life, because I couldn’t live the way I was living any longer.”

Getting addicts like Fitzmorris out of the revolving door of jail and into drug court rehab programs is central to new sentencing legislation that goes into effect next month. Keeping such low level offenders out of jail saves costly prison beds for violent criminals. Governor Deal told these graduates and their families that they are the living, recovering proof that the law is necessary for Georgia:

“You are our exhibits, your success will validate the judgement that the General Assembly has made to expand these opportunities.”

But as drug courts expand, so does the amount of drug evidence the state needs to process. The Georgia legislature set aside 1.2 million dollars for the Georgia Bureau of Investigation crime lab to hire more scientists and purchase new equipment.

But budgets at many rehab centers across the state are not increasing. That’s despite more addicts expected to be mandated to treatment. Ken Wilson, Executive Director of Stepping Stones to Recovery in Augusta, says he hasn’t been able to get any funding this year:

“Someone has to pay the bills, it’s either the parole system, or the state, or it comes out of my salary, and if it comes out of my salary, we won’t be treating any of them of course.”

But treating the addiction instead of locking the addict up is what proponents say will ultimately reduce recidivism, like the decade of going in-and-out of jail that Katie Fitzmorris experienced. Athens-Clarke County drug court judge Lawton Stephens says jail only punishes the crime—it doesn’t rehabilitate the offender and provide life skills for better choices:

“They’re able to reconnect with their families, they’re able to re-establish relationships with their children and with their friends and they have coping strategies for living healthy lifestyles. With that training and ability they’ve been given through the drug court programs, they’re much less likely to re-offend.”

“You’ve been given a chance, a second chance, that you can live free from addiction.”

As Governor Nathan Deal honored the six graduates of Gwinnet County’s drug court program, Katie Fitzmorris’ second chance is sitting in the audience—with blonde ringlets and a wide smile. It’s her 8 year old daughter, Ansley Lewis, now back in her Mom’s custody:

“I really felt proud of her, and I really felt proud of her.”

It's a sentiment shared by everyone—from the Governor to the graduates, as the next class of drug court “students” begin a new semester of recovery.