A University of Georgia student, age 18, nervously stood in front of the municipal court judge’s bench with a host of peers. The student had been arrested for the first time and charged with minor in possion a month prior. Others surrounding the judge’s bench shared similar experiences. Now, the first time offenders were all being placed on the Athens-Clarke County pretrial diversion program.
In pretrial diversion, first time offenders under the age of 21 are given the opportunity to have the charges against them dropped after paying fees and completing a meticulous checklist of requirements. Pretrial began to be strictly enforced in 2008 when the government took away control of the probation progams from private sectors.
“The pretrial program is a way for students to avoid a record with consequences through fines and community service,” said Eric Eberhardt, a partner at the Eberhardt & Hale, L.L.P. law firm in Athens. The rigorous program is expensive and time consuming, but it does produce a long term benefit for both the participants and the community.
The student, who entered pretrial diversion, faces costs of approximately $600 minium for completing the program. The fee to enter pretrial is around $300. The student will then pay $30 per month probation fee. An alcohol and drug awareness course is a requirement of the program and costs $115 through the university health center.
Many participants of the program and students are under the impression the Athens-Clarke County government uses the program as a method of exhorting money from first time offenders.
“I could’t believe how expensive it was to go through the probation process. I have had friends receive tickets for minor in possession that cost half of what I paid. I think this is just how the poorest county in Georgia makes its money,” said an anonymous student, who completed the pretrial program.
Athens-Clarke Auditor John Wolf completed an audit report on the program which showed this popular belief to be untrue. The probation program collected $922,000 in total fees last year, according to the audit. The program is government-run and required $804,000 to run leaving a $116,000 profit for the general county fund. That profit is equal to only about two percent of the county’s revenue. Superior Court Judge David Sweat even told commissioners the program should not be a revenue generator for the local government at a May 2009 budget hearing, reported the Athens Banner-Herald.
Hours of community service and probation meetings are another aspect of the pretrial program. The student must donate time to working for a specific charity or organization that is recommended and approved by the court system. The community service projects include volunteering with the homeless and animal shelters or beautifying public areas such as parks and highways. The student will also meet monthly with a probation officer to report the progress in the pretrial program. The student could be subjected to random drug testing during these monthly meetings. The student must also follow the strict rules of probation which include avoiding venues which sell alcohol and keeping out of legal trouble during the probation period. Failure to follow these guidelines result in removal from the program, and the student would again face charges.
The number of community service hours completed by probationers has more than doubled since 2008 when the government began running the probation program, according to the audit. The percentage of people completing the program has also increased from 70 to 90 percent.
“Certainly, with the large number of cases we have, they are handling it beautifully,” said Clarke County Solicitor C.R. Chisholm, who prosecutes misdemeanors. “We are seeing increased compliance and increased accountability on the part of the probationers.”
If the student completes the program, they have the charges dropped. The arrest can also be expunged off the student’s record in a few years at the age of 21 as long as the student does not get into trouble with the court again.
“Pretrial gives students the ability to avoid consequences that could keep them from getting a job or a chance at other future opportunities,” said Eberhardt.
So far, the rehabilitation pretrial program of the court system seems to benefit both probationers and the community. “Most people complete it and most people we don’t end up seeing again. We’re not trying to get the conviction as much as trying to change the behavior,” the Solicitor General told the Red & Black.
“It is a relief not to have one mistake hanging over my head for the rest of my life,” said the anonymous student, who went through pretrial. “Although the program was a pain, I am happy to have the incident behind me and a clean record.”