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Drug Court strikes at heart of problem

By Times staff writer

© St. Petersburg Times, published March 21, 2001


It is encouraging news that Hernando County is preparing to establish a judicial program that will provide meaningful treatment for drug-addicted defendants who commit non-violent crimes, instead of continuing to warehouse them in an already overburdened prison.

Drug Court strikes at the heart of drug-related crime instead of merely treating the symptom of lawbreaking. In many places where it has been tried, drug court has proven to be a progressive alternative to the outdated and expensive practice of sending drug users to jail with little or no effort to rehabilitate them.

Since the mid 1980s, when legislators began writing laws to punish drug users more severely, taxpayers have footed the increasingly steep bill for incarceration. Those laws created a ripple effect that grew into a tidal wave when well-intentioned, but shortsighted lawmakers established mandatory-minimum sentencing guidelines. By effectively tying the hands of judges who mete out the punishment, legislators have had to spend more and more to build prisons to hold the inmates, many of whom would not have broken the law had it not been for their drug use.

Drug Court is an inventive outgrowth of that dilemma. It began in South Florida in 1989 when Janet Reno was Dade County's State Attorney. Since then, the program's success has spawned operations in many other Florida counties, including Citrus, Marion, Hillsborough and Pinellas. In each place, the recidivism rate for non-violent drug-using criminals has decreased dramatically, and taxpayers have saved money by not having to pay the much higher costs of housing the defendant in prison.

Other savings to taxpayers are not as easy to track, but clearly exist. A drug-using defendant who can stay out of jail by entering Drug Court can continue to work and make a livingfor his family while he undergoes counseling, appears in court once a week and undergoes frequent urine and blood tests to verify sobriety. And, in a larger sense, the entire community benefits when substance abusers reclaim their lives, cutting down on drug-related crimes, such as burglarly, assault, vandalism and automobile accidents.

Richard Tombrink, administrative circuit judge in Hernando County, has agreed to take Drug Court under his wing and to run it with the goal of giving drug defendants a constructive alternative to prison. However, he also understands that to make it consequential, defendants who throw away their opportunity to reform must be dealt with harshly and sent to prison.

Clerk of the Court Karen Nicolai is working with Tombrink and Sheriff Richard Nugent to secure funding for the Drug Court. Some of the estimated $60,000 annual cost to administrate the program can be paid for with existing funds the clerk collects from people who file lawsuits or pay fines to the courts. There also is a good possibility state funding can be obtained, but it probably will require a matching grant from the County Commission. If that is necessary, we strongly urge the commission to allocate money in its budget.

Treatment and prevention are the best ways to combat drug use; for clear-thinking people that fact is indisputable. It is time for the get-tough-on-crime devotees to accept that reality and to fund programs such as Drug Court, instead of buying mortar and bricks to build new prisons where non-violent drug offenders are stockpiled to learn from more malicious felons.

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