Two Floyd County Superior Court judges are drawing up plans to establish a family court devoted to cases ranging from domestic violence to child custody battles.
“These are some of the hardest cases we have to deal with,” Judge Jack Niedrach said Thursday during a presentation to Rome Rotary Club members on the state of the local judiciary.
“Drug use and mental health are often issues; there’s rarely enough money for two households; and then there are instances of abuse — spousal and child abuse,” he added.
Niedrach said Chief Judge Bryant Durham is working with Judge Kay Ann Wetherington, who was sworn into office in January, to set up a family accountability court. The goal: to find solutions other than incarceration to problems in local homes.
“For people with a history of nonpayment of child support, it’s been shown to work in improving collections,” he said.
The family court will join the mental health court Niedrach started and the drug court over which Judge Billy Sparks presides. Niedrach said accountability courts — part of the criminal justice reforms spearheaded by former governor Nathan Deal in the past few years — are proving effective.
The specialized sentencing programs replace jail-time with intensive supervision, education and treatment in the community. They’ve had a measurable effect on the state’s prison population and, especially in the case of drug addicts who complete the program, cut down on the chances they’ll re-offend.
“We can’t just keep doing the same things the same way. They’re not working,” Niedrach said.
He got a chance to underscore that sentiment during a question-and-answer period, when he was asked to expound on the drug-abuse crisis in Floyd County. Niedrach said drugs are a factor in many cases, and no amount of incarceration will keep an addict from drugs.
“The effect on their family doesn’t matter to an addict, the possibility of death doesn’t matter ... You’ve got to have education, treatment and prevention. If you don’t have that, you’re wasting your time,” he said.
Methamphetamine, crack cocaine and illegal use of prescription drugs are the most common cases that come before him. But Niedrach said the opioid crisis is escalating, with people addicted to prescription painkillers turning to street drugs when their prescriptions run out.
“We are seeing a lot of cases involving heroin,” he said. “And even fentanyl, which can be 100 times the strength of morphine.”
Niedrach touched on a number of other issues during his talk, including the growing need for more space in the Judicial Building to recent changes to state DUI laws. He closed out with the observation that social media such as Facebook posts, Instagrams and text messages is being used more often as evidence in court.
“My advice is simple: Don’t put anything on social media that you don’t want your mom to see,” he said.
Floyd County Superior Court has four judges, who each average about 1,100 criminal and 600 civil cases a year, and three senior judges who can fill in at need.