Saturday, January 2, 2016

Build Prison vs Funding Drug Courts

The word “innovative” doesn’t jump to mind when you say “Wyoming.” Now Governor Matt Mead has decided to undo the state’s drug court program, one of the few innovative achievements of the last two decades.

Wyoming seems happiest being at odds with the flow of the universe. Other states change as more effective, less expensive ways of doing things became apparent. Wyoming fights the changes. University of Iowa political scientists recently studied the willingness of states to try new things. After Mississippi, Wyoming proved to be least willing to adopt innovative policies. That’s a prescription for disaster as we face a budget crisis.

But there was a time when crisis led to innovation. In the late 1990s Wyoming was uncharacteristically innovative in confronting a meth epidemic. As more people used meth and committed serious crimes, prison cells filled faster than new prisons could be built. Legislators looked furiously for alternatives. Troubled policymakers studied the issue and learned of a practice that saved money while saving lives. Drug courts offered an effective alternative.

Traditionally the immense authority of the judicial system was used primarily to sentence addicts to long, often mandatory terms in prison, but prison doesn’t cure addiction. Prisons were a revolving door. Criminals went to prison as addicts and they returned as addicts. The costs were high. Recidivism rates were higher.

Drug courts provide an effective alternative for states seeking to reduce massive spending on prisons while holding addicts accountable in a way that changes their lives and makes communities safer.

Understanding why drug courts work requires an understanding of the nature of addiction. Many cling to the myth that unless an addict wants treatment, it won’t work. Not true. Involuntary treatment has a high success rate if accompanied by a court-supervised process designed to make certain that clients get into treatment and remain there until they can safely enter into a lifetime of recovery.

Relapse is part of the disease. Drug courts know this and employ strategies to address it promptly. Drug court judges exert considerable influence and authority over participants. Frequent court appearances, drug testing, and intensive case management significantly improve the addict’s chances of success.
No single approach to reducing crime-related drug use has been researched more and none has been found more successful.

National Institute of Justice researchers documented that drug courts significantly reduced recidivism. One study found that within a two-year follow-up period, felony re-arrest rates decreased from 40 percent before drug court to 12 percent after. Furthermore, the investment in drug courts achieves savings for taxpayers.

Compared to traditional criminal justice programs, costs averaged $1,392 lower per drug court participant. Reduced recidivism and other long-term program outcomes resulted in public savings of $6,744 on average per participant, or $12,218 if victimization costs are included.

Armed with the knowledge of this innovative program in the late 1990s, Wyoming became the first state in the Union to create and fund an effective statewide drug court system.

The idea was never without its detractors. Some policymakers understood. Some didn’t. Willfully uninformed judges, prosecutors, and law enforcement officials clung to the discredited notion that prison was the better alternative. One of those was former U.S. Prosecuting Attorney Matt Mead.

Always a doubter, he’s now the Governor at a moment when budget cuts must be made and new priorities established. Alas, he has his excuse to cripple the drug court program. His budget will slash the already lean drug court funding by half. Wyoming drug courts will dry up and blow away in the Wyoming wind if Mead gets his way as their total appropriation will be reduced by $5 million.

Interestingly that’s roughly the same amount Mead’s budget gives University of Wyoming sports programs for matching funds. Mead calls that $5 million expenditure “critical.” His priority is a bowl-eligible football team.

Maybe that’ll happen one day, maybe not. One thing will certainly happen. If the Governor gets his way on drug court funding, the legislature should begin planning to buy a new prison.

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