Going to School to Stay Out of Jail

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Contrary to stereotypes of hard-nosed prosecutors and stern judges, not every District Attorney or criminal court judge is out to lock up every lawbreaker for the maximum term. In every state, there are programs designed to keep offenders out of jail and to steer them away from future offenses. We’re all familiar with probation, which substitutes supervision for jail time.

In recent years, other types of alternative approaches have been implemented. We’ve documented several of them: Mental Health Courts, Drug Courts, Juvenile Diversion, Veterans Courts, Adult Diversion, Family Dependency Treatment Court, and Traffic School. All of these approaches combine supervision with active treatment, counseling, or educational services – sometimes all three – to help the offender avoid another offense.

In some of these programs, the original charge is dismissed once the offender completes the program, and the stigma of a criminal or traffic-ticket record is avoided. In others, the offender still has a record but avoids incarceration. None of these programs are available to every defendant; they are generally open to first-time non-violent offenders who are likely to benefit from treatment. Even Traffic School is generally only available for lesser offenses (primarily speeding) and for drivers with no other recent tickets.

In Georgia’s Dougherty County, the District Attorney’s office and the local technical college have partnered to set up a program called “New Heights” that requires the offender to go to school instead of jail. Whereas Traffic School is only available for traffic offenses and only teaches safe driving, the New Heights program is available to all non-violent first offenders deemed appropriate by the DA’s office. Classes may include career training appropriate for the individual’s interest and ability, as well as basics such as GED and adult literacy. Community service may also be required.

As with the other types of “accountability courts” or “problem-solving courts” mentioned above, if the participant does not complete the program, he or she faces a trial or a plea agreement – in other words, potential jail time and a criminal record. In New Heights, if the offender does complete the program, both jail and a criminal record are avoided.

Schoolchildren may complain that school feels like being in jail, but adults facing real jail time are likely to prefer school – especially if it also helps them become a productive member of society. In Dougherty County, it can be a good thing when the DA “throws the book at ’em.”

CourtReference will continue to monitor and provide links to new developments in the justice system.

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