Drug Courts Serve Justice and Taxpayers

September 08, 2017 by

A Michigan drug court is celebrating the completion of its first year in service and has proven to be an effective example of how the justice system can truly serve those that it’s meant to, while being good stewards of tax dollars.

The program, Delta County Drug Court, is based in Escanaba, Michigan, and just held its first graduation. The program runs between 15 and 24 months and is currently serving 13 individuals, with one more to be added shortly.

Delta County’s drug court, like many across the country, is entirely reliant on state and federal grant dollars, so future funding depends on results.

In Delta County, for every tax dollar spent on the drug court program, they estimate a savings of $3.36, totaling anywhere between $3,000 and $13,000 per participant. “It costs $25,000 a year to pay for someone in jail and $35,000 a year for each person in prison. Most will repeat criminal behavior and return to the system,” said Delta County District Court Judge Steve Parks.

While the tax-related cost of housing offenders is staggering, there is also a significant societal cost, such as loss of revenues upon release due to the difficulty of finding a job – which can lead to repeat criminal behavior. Drug courts, however, are tackling the root cause of the problem for so many of these offenders: addiction. Statistics show that 75 percent of graduates from drug courts remain clean following their departure from the program.

These programs, which enjoy wide bipartisan support, began in 1989 in Miami and have now spread to over 2,500 courts. The first in Texas was started in 1993 in Jefferson County by Judge Larry Gist.

Participation in a program starts with a prosecutor offering a low-level offender, typically with no history of violent crime or mental illnesses, a plea deal. The deal diverts the person to a drug court program rather than incarceration, as long as they plead guilty to the drug-related charge and abide by the rules of the program. Components of the program include regular drug tests, drug treatment counseling, and regular appearances before the judge of that court to discuss performance in the program to-date.

In Texas, the 77th Legislature passed a law mandating that Texas counties with populations over a half million apply for grant funds to establish drug courts. This focused on the big counties: Bexar, Dallas, El Paso, Harris, Hidalgo, Tarrant, and Travis. But according to the National Drug Court Institute, Texas now has 152 total drug courts across the state.

The state estimates that it costs about $160,000 to fund a drug court, but their effectiveness is worth it. While Delta County promises a $3.36 return for every $1 of taxpayer money, a study of Dallas’s drug court, conducted by Southern Methodist University, found that for every dollar spent on diversion, that court saved taxpayers $9. Studies show that offenders who complete the program have a three-year recidivism rate of 3.4 percent, as compared to 21.4 percent for those who don’t.

Many offenders diverted to drug committed economically-motivated crimes, whether to feed an addiction or feed their family. Years of treating inmates with wildly different crimes the same as violent criminals and shuttling them through the same system has proven to be a failure. The only thing that it produces is better criminals.

Drug courts have proven to be successful in terms of delivering justice, rehabilitation, and providing taxpayers a promising return on their investment. More jurisdictions in Texas should take advantage of grant funds to begin implementing these programs.

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About the Author

Charles operates the Houston office for Empower Texans/Texans for Fiscal Responsibility.