Ten years ago, Thomas Baker was a self-described menace to society.
"I was robbing, stealing, breaking into people's houses, stealing from my family, writing bad checks," he said. "I was doing whatever I had to do to come up with the money to support my habit."
Things started going downhill for the former Adairsville High football player when he tore his ACL and MCL on the gridiron. Following knee surgery, he developed an addiction to painkillers. Eventually, his dealers turned him on to another drug — methamphetamine.
At one point, Baker found himself staring down a possible 128-year sentence. But instead of sending Baker to prison for the rest of his life, Judge D. Scott Smith sent him to the Cherokee Judicial Circuit Drug Court, an incarceration-alternative program that had just started in Bartow and Gordon.
"Thomas was my first graduate from the drug court program," Smith recollected. "He entered the program in July of 2008 — he has finished his sentence and become what I think is quite a success story."
At that time, Smith said there were less than 30 drug courts throughout the entire state of Georgia.
"We had such a difficult methamphetamine problem during those years that I thought Bartow and Gordon County really needed it to try to get a handle on the amount of people who were ending up in jail and in prison over drug use, to try to turn those people's lives around," he said.
The program, Smith said, is designed to identify individuals involved in the criminal justice system who have substance abuse problems and offer them an "alternative that will assist them in dealing with their addictions and changing their behavior over the course of time."
The local drug court lasts for 18 months, with graduates participating in an additional six-month aftercare program.
"We put them through a very intense and rigorous program, beginning with treatment," Smith said. Under the program, participants are required to have a job, are placed under curfews and are subject to random drug screenings. They must also attend self-help classes, support all of their dependents and meet all the normal requirements they may have as a probationer.
"When I first got into the drug court program, I just saw it as a way of getting out of jail," Baker said. "But the more that I got into the program, the more I realized that I can make a change in my life, and I started doing what they were asking me to do."
Had Baker, now 35, not gone through the program, he said today he'd be in one of two places: "dead in a ditch somewhere" or serving out a life sentence in prison.
"In this program, you're held accountable through the whole process. Without them giving me the tools and stuff I needed — they make you go get a job, they make you do drug tests — it wouldn't have happened," he said. "Nobody says 'I want to be addicted to drugs or I want to be a thief or a robber, a bad person.' Some people get into it because they like it, and some people get into it by mistake and can't get themselves out of the hole. But with programs like this, you're given an opportunity to help yourself."
A decade later
July 18 marks 10 years since the launch of the drug court in Bartow and Gordon.
To date, 206 individuals have graduated from the program.
"Generally, our program runs between 75 percent and 80 percent non-recidivist, which means between seven and eight out of 10 persons will not come back to us within five years," Smith said. "In other words, they don't have another offense, they don't come back to have a probation violation or something of that nature."
According to a 2018 Carl Vinson Institute of Government report, Georgia's accountability courts — which includes drug courts, family treatment courts and mental health courts, among other incarceration-alternatives — produced about $38 million in statewide benefits, including an estimated $11.6 million in avoided recidivism costs and $8.1 million in incarceration and adjudication savings.
The courts are funded via Georgia's Criminal Justice Coordinating Council, with program standards established by the state's Council of Accountability Court Judges.
"The legislature each year designates a certain amount of funding to be given out to accountability courts across the state," Smith said. "There is very little local money spent on this process. We do have in place of what would be a normal probation fee and a fine, our participants do pay a participant fee of $40 a week, which is pretty much the standard fine or fee schedule you would be on if you were on probation. We use that money to assist us as well."
By and large, Smith said local judges have the freedom to operate courts as they see fit, depending on the needs of each circuit's demographics.
"We might do things differently here in Bartow and Gordon County than they would perhaps do in Fulton County or Douglas County," he said. "It just depends on the amount of resources you have in your community, what type of drug problem you have — in some places, heroin might be a bigger problem, in some places, methamphetamine might be a bigger problem."
A central component of the courts, Smith said, is helping participants identify the "triggers" to their criminal and self-destructive behavior. The idea, he said, is to get those involved in the program to change the people, places and things that goad them into illegal behavior.
Georgia Department of Community Supervision State Probation Officer Tommy Robertson has seen the effectiveness of the program first-hand.
"With probation services, we see them throughout their lives go through revocation after revocation and prison after prison after prison," he said. "Then they have the opportunity to go to drug court and it's almost like it stops. They are now getting the tools that they never had, from reading and writing to something as small as having a checking account and having relationships with their parents."
Robertson works closely with the local drug court's surveillance unit. "We go out and check on their houses and get to know their families," he said. "We get to know them a little bit more in-depth than just seeing them once a week for drug testing — it's just being involved, basically, in their lives."
The accountability courts, he said, give peace of mind back to parents and, on more than one occasion, have resulted in children being placed back in their parents' home.
"This is not just 'I'm getting clean,' this is a whole lifestyle change," he said. "This is reuniting families and friends and people who have discarded these individuals."
Baker recounted getting into trouble just once in drug court. He was sanctioned and spent a weekend in jail.
"At that point, I was like, you know, I really want to give myself a chance at life,'" he said. "I wanted to accomplish something in life."
Ten years down the road, Baker still lives in Adairsville. He kicked his drug habit a long time ago and he's now married with two children. He's held a steady job for the last nine years, ultimately rising his way up the ranks to a management position.
And he hasn't been back to jail since.
"It's the way life's supposed to be," he remarked.
Mr. Smith goes to Washington (and Mr. Baker, too)
Last month, Smith and Robertson met with several elected officials in Washington, D.C. It represented an opportunity for them to thank national leaders — among them, U.S. Senators Johnny Isakson and David Perdue — for their support of Georgia's accountability courts.
"This is probably one issue that has total bipartisan support from the most liberal person who is in Washington to the most conservative person in Washington," Smith said. "It seems like everybody supported this type of program."
Both Baker and his wife were invited to attend the tour of the nation's capital alongside Smith and Robertson.
"Right away, I knew I wanted to go," Baker said. "You're up there with the people who run this country, and actually getting to sit down and talk to [them], and they're looking at you, wanting to hear your story — not to down you, but to see that what they're doing and putting the money out for is making a difference."
Smith said that Baker is a shining example of the impact drug courts can have on the lives of participants.
"He turned his life completely around and went from a very destructive path to being a very productive person in our community," he said. "So much money comes in for funding and support of these programs, but it's very rare that you get to see a living, breathing example of how this funding actually helps people."
It was a poignant, emotional trip for Baker.
"I was up there with Officer Robertson and Judge Smith, and when we weren't up on Capitol Hill, talking to the people and doing all the interviews and stuff, we just went out and had dinner and walked around and stuff like that," he said. "They never for a second looked at me for my past ... it was more like they looked at me as a friend, and me and my wife were just there with them on vacation."
Programs like the drug court, Baker said, aren't just keeping people out of prison — they're saving lives.
"Without this program, Bartow County would be overrun, the jail system would be overrun," he said. "There would just be people out on the streets, falling over dead."
Smith said he'd certainly like to see accountability courts expanded in Bartow and Gordon.
"We need to try to increase the number of people we're able to service," he said. "I think over time that's going to require us to expand the program with a larger number of staff and perhaps even a larger physical place to do that — you can only put so many people in one room."
Smith admits drug courts aren't a cure-all for the community's substance abuse crisis. But as evident by Baker's remarkable turnaround, he nonetheless considers the investments in incarceration-alternatives more than worthwhile.
"This program is not going to answer every problem, but it is definitely a tool that I think has a better impact and a more positive result than some traditional criminal justice methods," Smith said. "The proof is in the pudding. When you see people like Thomas Baker, who a lot of people would've liked to have seen gone to prison for the things that he had done, to turn him into a person who is productive, paying taxes, supporting his family and becoming a member of his community? You can't put a dollar figure on things such as that."