During Tuesday’s Civilian Police Academy, hosted by the LaGrange Police Department, civilians learned about the criminal justice system from Troup County’s district attorney and solicitor general.
District Attorney Pete Skandalakis presented a slide show to the class depicting caseloads of assistant district attorneys (ADAs) in his circuit, which includes Troup, Meriwhether, Heard, Coweta and Carroll Counties.
He explained that a common misconception in criminal justice is that officers and judges prosecute; however, the district attorney chooses whether or not prosecute a case.
“Before the judge can see anything, we have to file it,” said Skandalakis. “Anything we do to keep a case off the calendar, we make that decision. We’re the gatekeeper. Before the judge can see anything, we have to file formal charges.”
He showed in the presentation, that ADA’s are overloaded within his five county circuit and compared them to counties with lesser caseload per ADA and population.
“I have to admit it, you will probably get better service from a DA in a one county circuit where the DA can better manage his people, than you can in a five county circuit where I’m constantly on the road and reviewing cases,” he said.
Though the average caseload is per ADA is about 300 per year in his circuit, he pushes his ADAs to bring all cases to court within six months of filing, with the exception of murders or other violent crimes that may take longer to put together.
“The sooner we can get a case to court, the better it is for me to prosecute because we can find the witnesses. And children’s memories gets worse,” explained Skandalakis. “You don’t want to wait five years later for someone to testify, then they’ll forget, especially children.”
He explained that every defendant has the right to a speedy trial, which is based upon whether attorneys have moved a case fast enough so the defendant receives a fair trial. A factor in preventing trials to move quickly is the limited number of days that judges are available throughout the counties.
Part of funding for the DA’s office comes from drug forfeitures. Ten percent of forfeitures are given to the DA’s office and 90 percent to law enforcement, whether in the form of cash, cars or other assets. There was a 443 percent decrease in drug forfeiture from 2011 to 2012, said Skandalakis.
“Drug dealers have gotten a lot smarter, nowadays they’re driving a 1973 Impala or they’re renting,” he said. “When we see that money come down, we get concerned because we then can’t meet operating expenses.”
Following Skandalakis’ presentation, Solicitor general Markette Baker spoke of how courts have changed tremendously over the years with increasing use of alternative courts, which includes DUI/Drug and Mental Health Courts.
“We’re seeing a trend in criminal justice where we’re moving towards alternative courts because we’re tired of putting people in jail who are minor drug users, who are not violent offenders,” said Baker.
The first alternative court in Troup County, the DUI Court, started nearly 10 years ago by Judge Jeannette Little, she said. The program proved much more effective than sending alcohol abusers to rehab or jail.
She recalled a case involving a male with more than 10 DUIs who had been going to long term rehab facilities, but would re-offend after he was released. When he enrolled in the Drug Court program, he was able to change his habit.
“It’s easy not to drink in rehab, because you don’t have alcohol or drugs there,” said Baker. “They need to deal with it in a regular environment around the people that they’re friends with. Not an artificial environment.”
She explained how repeat offenders would go back to committing crimes after serving a year or so in jail, and state courts had begun to find a solution to the problem by use of the alternative courts.
The courts save taxpayer money and it is cheaper to put money into alternative courts than to put people in jail, said Baker. The courts provide accountability to offenders as they have to pay for the court, instead of taxpayers.
Mental and Drug Courts have begun in the last two years in Troup County, which is becoming an increasingly used resource. The courts take longer to complete than DUI Court due to diagnoses and having to complete medications.
“Most of them were self-medicating on alcohol or drugs,” she learned. ““It’s amazing to see those people transform using the alternative courts.”
One of the hardest cases to prosecute, said Baker, is domestic violence. Partially due to victims not showing up or often times changing their stories once on the stand.
A successful program, for batterers, Baker found, is the Batterers Intervention Program, which helps rehabilitate the offender. The recidivism rate for domestic violence offenders in Troup County is about 30-to-40-percent; when completing the Batterers Intervention Program the recidivism rate showed seven to eight percent.
“I’m just excited and rejuvenated about the successes we’ve had in the alternative programs and it’s all about trying to figure out what’s the problem,” she said. “We deal with that so we don’t have to continue to deal with the crime.”