Steve Ellis, Sandy Springs’ new city solicitor, plans to completely revamp its Municipal Court system, and the restructured program could begin this summer.
Instead of sending all individuals with citations through one court system, it will split them up into different courts for those with drug and alcohol issues, mental health problems and for veterans only.
Part of that metamorphosis, City Attorney Dan Lee said, includes programs to keep minor offenders out of jail, a move that will benefit both Sandy Springs and the individuals it arrests.
“We found that in Sandy Springs we spent a lot of money putting people in jail and keeping them in jail, and the medical costs we incur are for people who don’t belong in jail if this program existed (are high),” Lee said. “… So the success rate of every individual is very important but as a city we want to do the right thing and also save money.”
Ellis and Lee announced their plans during the Sandy Springs City Council’s May 4 work session at City Springs. Ellis, who replaced Leslie Donaho, previously served as chief deputy solicitor for Cobb County, where he spent 10 years. He operated some of the alternative courts in Cobb County, including Drug Court, Mental Health Court and Veterans Court. Ellis also established Cobb’s DUI Court.
Sandy Springs’ Municipal Court system will shift to a similar format, with the accountability court treatment team at the top of the organizational chart, according to his presentation document. To its left is the general diversion program, which is for first-time offenders. DUI Court will be on the right side, and at the bottom are the three diversion tracks: mental/behavioral health, alcohol and drug addiction and veterans.
The new court system will be a hybrid one with both diversion and accountability programs. Diversion is a pre-plea strategy offered only by the prosecutor’s office in which a defendant completes specific terms and conditions, usually six to 24 months, in exchange for having his or her case dismissed.
Accountability is a post-plea program where a defendant enters a guilty plea before a judge and undergoes a sentence that could last 12 to 36 months. If the program is successfully completed, the conviction will be reversed partly or wholly and the case will be dismissed, with the guilty plea vacated.
“We’re going to focus on cases where there’s drug, mental illness or veterans issues,” Ellis said. “We’ll also have a DUI Court like we had in Cobb. The DUI Court will be a post-plea program, not pre-plea. … This will be a highly individualized approach, not one size fits all.”
One thing that will remain unchanged is the Municipal Court will not see any serious crime offenders such as individuals accused of armed robbery or murder.
The city’s courts will charge fees to defendants to help pay for its services, such as a treatment provider. Ellis said the city expects to have 35 to 40 individuals for what he calls the pilot program, which would be the first group of defendants to go through the different court systems and plans to start fast.
“Accountability court is 18 months from start to finish, but we’re going to do this in less than six months,” he said.
The city’s accountability court treatment team is meeting April through June, and it will open the application process for defendants from mid-June through August. The first applicants re expected to be accepted into the program in August and September.
“When they graduate in 12 months, 24 months, they have been restored, and they likely won’t reoffend,” Ellis said.
District 5 Councilman Tibby DeJulio asked him what his success rate in the past was for his programs in Cobb. Ellis said the DUI Court’s success rate during its first 10 years (2008-18) was 75 to 80%, and the Mental Health Court’s was 66%.
“I’m going to shoot for 100,” he said of all the court’s programs. “I know I’m not going to get there. But realistically, we should shoot for 66 to 85%.
Ellis said all court program participants will be subject to alcohol and drug screening. Any participants who can’t afford to pay the court fees, which are $700 upfront and $60 a month can have them waived or converted into community service.