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Newton court program for mentally ill crime suspects named 'model' for others
State agency asks program officials to assist judicial circuits statewide with their Mental Health Court operations

COVINGTON, Ga. — A Newton County court program designed for crime suspects whose mental illness contributed to their alleged actions has been named one of eight “model courts" in Georgia. 

The Georgia Council of Accountability Court Judges (CACJ) has recognized the Newton County Resource (Mental Health) Court for the honor which carries with it a commitment to provide assistance to similar court programs in the state.

Model courts are programs reviewed and selected by the CACJ's Nominations Committee to provide assistance to other court programs across the state, according to the council's website.

A panel of accountability court judges from throughout Georgia evaluated the court and selected it for the award based on "its strong performance in this peer review process," said Robert Fox, coordinator for the program in Newton and Walton counties.

Superior Court Judge Layla Zon is the presiding judge for the Newton County program which works with individuals whose mental illnesses contributed to their criminal conduct, Fox said. 

The Newton program serves 16 participants while 14 participate in the program in Walton County, Fox said.

A total of 88 have gone through the Newton program and 41 have graduated, while 74 have gone through the Walton program and 35 have graduated, Fox said.

Superior Court Judge Samuel Ozburn established the Newton County program in 2013 and presided over it until his retirement earlier this year. Judge Eugene Benton will preside over the Walton program until his retirement at the end of this year, Fox said.

Fox has served as coordinator of both programs since 2017. 

Ozburn said organizing and presiding over the court program "was one of the most rewarding experiences I had as a judge."

"It is rare for a court to not only save lives but save money as well, but that’s what this court has been able to do," Ozburn said. 

"Credit must be given to the court staff members who provided treatment, random drug testing, home visits, curfew checks and much care and kindness to the participants. I am confident that under the capable leadership of Judge Zon this will continue," he said.

Gov. Brian Kemp appointed Zon in May to replace Ozburn on the Newton County Superior Court bench. 

Zon said that, "Since presiding over the Resource Court for the past six months, I can appreciate the recognition of our court as a Model Court in the state of Georgia. 

"Judge Ozburn and the staff of the court, under the leadership of Robert Fox, have established a court staff that adheres to and exceeds the standards by the state," she said. 

"I am proud to be involved in this court and I look forward to continuing to serve the community in this capacity with this great team of treatment providers, law enforcement, and attorneys from both the prosecution and defense. This court changes lives and makes our community safer.”

Fox said Mental Health Courts help participants improve their independent functioning, reduce substance abuse, provide greater consistency in receiving mental health treatment, spend fewer days in jail, and reduce long-term government costs.

The programs provide a full range of support and supervision to the participants including individual therapy, evidence-based group treatment, psychiatric assessments, medication management, clinical case management, and more, the CACJ stated in a review of the program.

Participants are screened to determine eligibility. They regularly attend treatment, and the court regularly supervises their actions through random drug testing and in-home visits by sheriff's deputies, Fox said. 

However, he noted state law prohibits participation by individuals who have committed such offenses as murder, armed robbery and sex-related crimes. 

CACJ Executive Director Taylor Jones said the Newton program is part of the inaugural group of Mental Health Court programs to be named model courts, following other accountability courts which received the same awards.

The agency rates individual court programs on such objective criteria as program age, length of time the judge and coordinator have served, certification, and peer review results, according to the CACJ. 

Once selected, the state agency notifies them of the award and requests that the model court assist other programs for three years. Model courts provide support ranging from simple calls and emails, to hosting visitors who want to observe their accountability court processes firsthand.

They also assist other judicial circuits with establishing new programs, Jones said.