Column: Drug court could work here – with your supportAs one of your state district judges chambered here, it is my strong hope and desire to initiate a drug court as an ongoing part of Goodhue County District Court system. There are challenges and potential roadblocks to overcome, but I believe that a drug court program can begin soon with the support of this community.
By: Thomas Bibus, Red Wing, The Republican Eagle
As one of your state district judges chambered here, it is my strong hope and desire to initiate a drug court as an ongoing part of Goodhue County District Court system. There are challenges and potential roadblocks to overcome, but I believe that a drug court program can begin soon with the support of this community.
A drug court is a problem-solving approach that uses the power of the court in collaboration with other participants (prosecutors, defense counsel, treatment providers, probation officers, law enforcement, educational and vocational experts, and community leaders) to closely monitor the defendant’s progress toward sobriety and recovery through ongoing treatment, drug testing, mandatory check-in court appearances, and the use of a range of immediate sanctions and incentives to foster behavior change.
The drug court is post adjudication. This means entry into the program is after conviction: after the defendant has pled guilty, admitted to the crime, and received a sentence. Often the participant serves time in jail before beginning probation in the drug court program.
A drug court program is not suited for every drug offender. Defendants who are dangerous or high-level drug sellers belong in prison. But a drug court does target repeat offenders who are earnestly seeking to turn their lives around and become healthy, contributing law-abiding citizens. The idea is to rely on more rigorous supervision, treatment, and accountability as a way of helping most non-violent drug users rather than simply sending them to prison.
Drug offenders are being sent to prison in growing numbers. The number housed in Minnesota prisons has increased from 4,605 in 1995 to 9,214 today. The Minnesota Supreme Court Chemical Dependency Task Force reports that drug offenders occupied 9 percent of state prison space in 1990. By 2003, that figure rose to 25 percent.
Almost one-third of new drug offenders admitted to prison in 2003 were for fifth-degree offenses (the lowest level), many as a consequence of probation revocations. According to Michael Paymar, chair of the Public Safety Finance Committee in the Minnesota House, for 2008 taxpayers will pay $335 million alone in direct costs for state prisons, not to mention the costs for county jails.
Is there a better way to look at low-level drug offenders than the “lock ‘em up and throw away the key” approach?
Last year, the Judicial Council, which governs the administration of the state court system, made expansion of the drug court model a major priority. As a result, we now have 26 functioning drug courts with several more in the planning stages. These courts are helping addicted defendants get treatment and begin the journey toward a sober, responsible, productive, and most importantly, law-abiding life.
Studies across the country show drug courts are working. In 2005, the U.S. Government Accountability Office found that recidivism rates for drug court participants were 10 to 30 percent below those of comparable groups. The National Drug Court Institute reports that 70 percent of participants graduate from the program and reoffend at a rate of 17 percent on average, compared to the 66 percent recidivism rate of drug offenders who do time in prison.
Drug court programs not only reduce recidivism, but by doing so they result in dramatic savings in costs to local governments. The Pierce County, Wisconsin drug court reports a savings to the county of over $400, 000 in jail, foster care and other costs, since the program was started in October 2004.
A recent federal evaluation of the drug court program in La Crosse, Wis., reported a net savings to the county of slightly more than $1 million a year. These savings are from reduced jail time needed, the efficient use of chemical dependency treatment funds, gainful employment and taxes being paid, child support payments made on time, less court litigation for drug court participants, fewer foster home placements for offenders’ children, and ending the cycle of recidivism.
In short, there is a compelling case for a return on the investment!
I have visited the successful drug court program in Wabasha. My staff has thoroughly researched other programs, including those in Dakota County. I believe a drug court, with the critical element of judicial oversight and involvement, is right for Goodhue County.
The cost to Goodhue County taxpayers will be minimal. The drug court would be run during normal court hours with court facilities and court personnel. A part-time coordinator will initially work on a volunteer basis. Onging administrative costs, including drug and alcohol screening tests and ancillary services, will be paid for by drug court participation fees. These fees have been authorized by a new Minnesota statute, and there are also grants being awarded to support the statewide drug court initiatives.
Funding for treatment is a challenge, but that is a continuing concern with or without a drug court. A goal of the drug court program will be to make the use of chemical dependency treatment funds more efficient and productive, because of the collaborative effort of a drug court team, intensive supervision, and active judicial oversight.
To those who are interested in the drug court concept for Goodhue County, I ask that you let your voices be heard. With your support and the support of county agencies, we can quickly move forward to the initiation of a drug court and all the benefits it will bring to us as citizens of Goodhue County.