Funding drug courts would save the state money


October 3 — As the state legislature prepares to spend hundreds of millions of dollars to build new prisons, the Morgan County Drug Court coordinator finds it surprising that he does not allocate more money to a program that has had surprising success in keeping people out of jail.

Tammy Jolley said Morgan County Drug Court – one of 55 in the state – has about 65 current attendees, as many as it can handle with current staff. Its recidivism rate – the percentage of people who reoffend within three years of graduating from the program – is 13.43%, compared to a recidivism rate of about 65% nationally for persons incarcerated for drug-related offenses.

Participants in drug courts must plead guilty to their drug-related crime, but the case is closed and they do not serve jail time if they successfully complete the program.

More money, Jolley said, would allow him to hire more staff. That would mean more people in the program and fewer people in jail.

“I think you could have a drug court here in Morgan County with 200 attendees and do amazing things not just for your client – and you never serve one person, it does amazing things for everyone. those their life touches – but also for your community, for your prison budget. It’s just a much more fiscally and socially responsible way of doing business, “she said.

The Morgan County drug court recidivism rate is exceptionally low, but the drug court model has seen similar success nationwide. According to the National Association of Drug Court Professionals, only 25% of drug court graduates are re-arrested. The average annual cost of housing a prisoner is $ 22,650, according to NADCP, compared to an average annual cost of $ 6,985 for a drug court participant. And the prisoner released on a drug-related charge is likely to reoffend, while the drug court graduate likely won’t.

The NADCP calculates that every $ 1 invested in drug courts saves taxpayers $ 27. Jolley points to data like this as she searches for ways to expand a program that she says has benefited not only her participants but the county.

“It would be great if people in our community decided that they liked our program to the extent that they wanted to send us a case manager so that we could take more people into the drug court program, so that more people can access it, ”she said. noted.

More public funding?

Morgan County Circuit Judge Charles Elliott, who chairs the drug court, said the state legislature has made great strides in recent years in sentencing reform, but neglecting court funding of drugs, she neglected one of the most effective ways of rehabilitating defendants while keeping them out of jail.

Aggressive oversight is especially critical for monitoring the unique needs of drug addicts in drug courts, he said. In Morgan County, that means more funds are needed to hire case managers and others who have direct contact with participants.

State Senator Arthur Orr, R-Decatur, does not disagree, and he believes such funding is feasible.

“For a successful program like this, we should be able to find additional resources if it helps to expand the program and reduce recidivism, which of course cuts costs for the Department of Corrections,” he said. he declared. “The timing is good because the General Fund is in the best shape it has been financially in years.”

Orr said lawmakers are increasingly receptive to creative approaches to keeping defendants out of jail.

“There has been interest in the legislature in recent years to… see if we can’t safely reduce the census of prisons across the state.”

Cost “a barrier to entry”

More funding would not only allow more case managers and more participants, but would help remove the financial barriers that prevent people from entering drug courts, said Leah Nelson, director of research at the Alabama Appleseed Center for Law and Justice.

“When we look at the context of treatment courts and treatment programs, (the cost) is a barrier to entry, which means people are not necessarily able to access these services,” said Nelson. “And it’s really wild because this is all happening in the context of a state that has so many problems with prison overcrowding and violence that the Department of Justice is suing our entire prison system.”

Jolley recognizes that costs can be a barrier for potential drug court participants and she has taken several steps to reduce these costs. Specifically, the Morgan County Drug Court does not charge an upfront admission fee like many in the state do, and rather than requiring that a participant pay for each drug test, the participant pays a set amount. per month.

“You can walk into drug court without a dime in your pocket,” Jolley said, stressing that the upfront costs or prompt payment demands would prevent him from helping those who need the program the most. “What you would end up with is sort of a payment for justice situation, where there are those who can afford to be in a drug court and those who can’t. The people who need it most. of us would not have access. “

But costs can increase further during a participant’s stay in drug court, which lasts on average 18-20 months but sometimes lasts for years.

Participants pay a supervision fee of $ 35 per month plus a $ 70 per month fee for drug tests, an amount Jolley noted well below the actual cost of drug tests. They also have to pay for an initial specialist assessment – at least $ 50 – and costs may increase if the assessment finds they need hospital or residential treatment. One of the biggest expenses – beyond Jolley’s control – are legal costs, which often exceed $ 1,000.

Although Jolley points out that these combined costs are generally less than what an accused in a criminal drug case must pay if convicted or pleads guilty, she acknowledges the problem.

“It’s almost $ 200 a month that they could pay. It’s not to be sneezed at if you’re making $ 8.50 an hour,” she said.

Small paid staff

But the money to run the drug court has to come from somewhere. Its only funding comes from participants, Morgan County Community Corrections – which has its own funding issues – and an annual state grant that is typically around $ 30,000. Jolley and a part-time drug court graduate peer support specialist are the only paid staff, though volunteers – including Dr Charles Elliott, the judge’s father – are also stepping in.

“If you have a high workload because you can’t afford to hire other officers or case managers, their success rate will go down,” Jolley said. “I know what we have to offer with the funding we have. I’m only going to take the worst of the worst, those who I think are in dire straits and need our help.”

Other people who could benefit from the program are unlikely to make the cut. And the population targeted by the program – precisely because of their desperate situation – often find it difficult to meet the financial obligations of participation.

“We strive to make it work, to give our support, to use all the resources to help our clients, but at the end of the day no one else stands out by offering felony terminations with all the resources that you have access … while you’re in drug court, “Jolley said. “So if you want this not to be recorded and you want your life to change, there are sacrifices to be made.”

Judge Elliott worked with the district attorney’s office to find a partial solution to outstanding court costs, which prevent an otherwise successful participant from completing drug court and being released from supervision. In such cases, the prosecutor’s office may sometimes decide to dismiss the case without prejudice. This does not release the participant from the financial obligation, and technically the prosecutor can resubmit the case if payments are not made, but it does put an end to drug court oversight and the costs that go with it.

Nelson said one obvious solution to cost barriers is state funding. Elliott is puzzled that such funding did not materialize.

“How could we not fund treatment courts if they have proven their cost savings? How not to finance them if they have proved their worth? Drug courts are both the most successful and the most studied criminal justice initiatives we have in this country, “he said.

And while the potential cost savings to taxpayers may be the best argument for legislative funding, the transformation of human lives is what captivates Elliott.

“When people argue in drug court, I say, ‘We’re going to be on the bus with you. We’ll buy gasoline and we’ll have a map and we’ll give you directions, but you “I have to drive the bus. You are responsible for your success or failure in this program. We will help you along the way. We’ll come and get you when you fall, ”he said.“ But when we see people and they make complete changes in their lives, that’s the highlight of my work, and it’s not not even close. “

[email protected] or 256-340-2435. Twitter @DD_Fleischauer.

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