The recent COVID-19 pandemic is putting on full display how unnecessary nonviolent incarceration is to our criminal justice system. As these facilities have become some of the most susceptible areas for coronavirus to spread, corrections agencies across the country – including the biggest of them all, the Department of Justice – have recommended nonviolent inmates transition to home confinement or put on parole. In Georgia, instead of entering into a corrections facility, individuals are increasingly getting the opportunity to participate in an accountability court. Accountability courts have already benefited the state of Georgia economically and socially. However, the next step in their growth is to expand to distance learning. RED’s online learning platform allows the Felony/Drug accountability courts’ impact to grow in magnitude, and scale their efforts at a faster rate, while also being cost-effective for the participants and courts involved.
What Are Accountability Courts?
Accountability Courts are an alternative to incarceration where nonviolent offenders are provided treatment for issues that are believed to have contributed to them committing their criminal act. As of 2018, there were seven distinct accountability courts identified by the Carl Vinson Institute of Government at the University of Georgia – an organization responsible for conducting an economic impact analysis of Georgia’s Accountability Court Program. The seven identified are the following:
- Felony/Drug Court
- Mental Health Court
- Veterans Court
- DUI/Drug Court
- Family Treatment Court
- Juvenile Drug Court
- Juvenile Mental Health Court
Accountability Courts Get A Boost
When former Georgia Governor Nathan Deal took office in 2011, the state’s prison population was swelling at an alarming rate. Georgia’s corrections budget had already surpassed $1 billion per year and showed no signs of decreasing. “I was told that as Governor, I should be prepared to build two new adult prisons because our prison population would grow by another 5,000 during my first term,” recalls Deal. This is when the former Republican governor felt compelled to do something different.
In 2012, former Governor Deal appointed a former drug court judge, Justice Michael P. Boggs, to co-chair the Criminal Justice Reform Council. Deal charged Boggs with finding solutions to the state’s criminal justice systems issues, with one caveat, the solutions should be attractive enough to yield bipartisan support. The Criminal Justice Reform Council expanded funding for accountability courts with significant results. Accountability courts assisted in halting Georgia’s swelling inmate population. As a result, Georgia’s 2017 inmate population was 8,000 people less than had been projected. Today, there are the same amount of Georgians incarcerated as there were in 2009; a dramatic trajectory shift from earlier estimates.
Accountability Courts’ Economic and Social Impact
Accountability Courts have shown significant benefits to the state of Georgia. Two areas in particular that have shown improvement by the courts are Georgia’s economy and its social landscape. Economically, accountability courts produce $38.2 million in estimated annual benefits. These benefits are the result of reductions in recidivism costs, healthcare costs, and adjudication and incarceration savings. Socially, accountability courts reduce incarceration rates, keeps families intact by not removing a member from the home, and they allow healing to occur for the underlying issue instead of focusing solely on punishment. An accountability court graduate had this to say about her experience, “I was originally supposed to go to prison on this sentence, so I fought to get the Mental Health Court. Going to prison just teaches you more how to be a criminal, and I’m not a criminal. Mental Health Court has given me another chance at life.”
Accountability Courts And Their Need For Distance Learning
As wonderful as accountability courts are, they have some shortcomings. Accountability courts require participants to report frequently for alcohol and drug testing and be physically present for the meetings and court appearances. This sort of participation occurs during court operational hours, Mon – Fri, 8am – 5pm. This can present difficulties for participants who are employed, especially shift-workers. Another shortcoming to accountability courts is the fact that some require participants to pay a monthly program fee in order to continue participating. Many individuals in society, especially the ones who these courts service the most do not have the financial means to pay for an accountability court program. Lastly, accountability courts are not everywhere. In Georgia, some counties have no accountability courts, while others have one or two offerings. If your county does not have it available, then this is not an option for you to pursue.
Education is an effective tool for both reducing recidivism and helping in rehabilitation. Providing access to education has been well researched and compelling evidence exists to show how it contributes to lowering recidivism rates. All prisons offer GED classes, and others even have the privilege of being granted the access to college offerings. A great example of education being effective is California’s The Last Mile program. The Last Mile program trains inmates to code as well as other computer skills. The program has graduated about 400 students and has a zero recidivism rate. Yes, not one inmate graduate has reoffended since its inception. The program’s recidivism rate stands in stark contrast to that of their home state of California, which currently stands at 55%. In every RED cohort, we have had at least one individual who has entered the program without a GED. We place obtaining a GED as a top priority since it helps in a number of ways. By obtaining their GED participants are increasing their ability to obtain gainful employment, increasing earning potential, and being the first step in the pursuit of higher education.
RED’s Online Restorative Justice Curriculum takes the data-driven RED program and allows individuals greater access through its availability online. The program’s recidivism rate is ~5%, whereas the national recidivism rate is 65%. The RED program is currently available for the Felony Court. Although RED was founded, and is based out of Georgia, the online platform can be accessed at home, in a coffee shop, or anywhere else that an individual has internet access. Unlike accountability courts, RED allows learning to occur at the convenience of the participant – on their own time and at their own pace. If they don’t understand or would like to refresh themselves on a certain topic or concept, they can log in and go through the relevant module as many times as they would like. RED’s online platform is free to participants and operates at a fraction of the cost of current accountability courts. It will also allow accountability courts, in any jurisdiction, to track their participant’s development, as they too will have access to the online platform and can monitor the progress of the participants in their relevant court.
Distance learning is the new frontier in accountability courts. Even after COVID-19, distance learning will continue to grow in importance. As accountability courts have proven to be an effective alternative to locking up nonviolent offenders, RED’s online learning platform will soon prove to enhance Felony Courts and benefit our society as its magnitude is greater, more scalable, more accessible, and cost-effective than current accountability courts. Learning on an online platform like RED will allow Georgia’s accountability courts to have a greater impact on the participants as well as the courts that provide the program.