by Tunde AkinyeleIn 2008, according to the latest figures available from the Georgia Department of Corrections, the state of Georgia spent more than 1 billion dollars to incarcerate approximately 60, 000 prisoners in its 40 state-operated and 3 privately-run facilities.
County governments in Georgia also use 162 jails in 159 counties to house approximately 40,000 inmates. Of those in prison, many have committed serious crimes for which they should be incarcerated. However, many people are locked up for non-violent crimes such as simple possession of drugs and thefts that could be resolved through alternative methods.
Effective punishment for those violating some of these lesser crimes should include alternative methods such as mandatory participation in diversion programs.
In addition to saving the state money, diversion programs help law enforcement personnel focus resources on prosecuting those who commit more serious and violent crimes that have a greater impact on society. Another important benefit is to change the criminal mindset and behavior of those who could commit more serious crimes.
DeKalb County prosecutors working with the courts have used diversion programs for years. They include DUI court, drug court, and programs that address domestic violence and mental health issues. Most are funded using federal grant money and usually require that any offender not have a prior conviction for a violent crime or for the sale or distribution of drugs.The DeKalb County State Court has operated a successful self-funded DUI court since 2004. It generally targets repeat DUI offenders with a primary focus on treating alcohol addiction.
The DeKalb County Superior Court has also run a successful drug court program that helps individuals who have had multiple arrests for simple drug possession. The Superior Court program addresses alcohol and drug abuse issues. It also helps its enrollees address family and relationship issues that contribute to or result from chronic drug and alcohol use. Theft related cases are resolved by requiring that the accused accept responsibility for their actions and focus on paying restitution to the victim.
Domestic violence cases are addressed through programs such as Men Stopping Violence. It and other court-monitored private counseling programs have been successfully used by DeKalb County courts for a number of years.
Mental health court provides the most complex program. It must protect the privacy of individuals but must also have enough information about the individual to provide them with an effective way of helping them.As crime and the costs associated with fighting it increases, the time to support diversion programs is now. As a lawyer who has worked for the past nine years as a prosecutor, I have seen firsthand how diversion programs have held violators accountable for their actions, but also how they can benefit the larger community.
Granted, diversion programs are not the answer for all crimes. People who commit violent and serious crimes need to be held accountable and punished for those crimes. However, it is the responsibility of those of us who work in law enforcement to support and promote alternative ways that can protect the public in less costly but effective ways.
Tunde Akinyele lives in Decatur and is a candidate for DeKalb County State Court Judge in 2010.