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A Times Editorial

Continue Drug Court: A worthy investment

© St. Petersburg Times,
published June 3, 2001

It was shortsighted and irresponsible of the state Legislature to not adequately fund Drug Court, a broad-minded and needed program that is struggling financially in counties like Citrus.

But just because the high-profile politicos in Tallahassee missed another opportunity to invest money in the short-term in order to reap great savings over the long run, doesn't mean the County Commission should follow suit.

That's why the commission, as its staff prepares the operating budget for coming fiscal year, should dedicate enough money to the Drug Court program to ensure it remains solvent.

Drug court provides meaningful treatment to drug-addicted defendants who commit non-violent crimes. It is a progressive alternative to sending drug users to jail, which is much more expensive and where there is little or no effort to rehabilitate them. The program attacks the core of drug-related crime instead of just treating the symptom of lawbreaking by imposing jail terms.

Since the mid-1980s, when legislators began writing laws to punish drug users more severely, taxpayers have footed the increasingly high bill for incarceration. Those laws created a ripple effect that grew into a tidal wave when well-intentioned, but imprudent lawmakers established mandatory 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 warehouse inmates, many of whom would not have broken the law had it not been for their drug addictions.

Drug Court is an inventive outgrowth of that dilemma. It began in 1989 when Janet Reno was Dade County's State Attorney. Since then, successful programs have sprouted up in many other Florida counties, including Citrus, and nearby Marion, Hillsborough and Pinellas. (Hernando County is expected to establish its first Drug Court this summer.) In counties where the program has been in place for some time, 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 imprisoning the defendant.

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 living for his family while he undergoes counseling, appears in court once a week and undergoes frequent urine drug tests to verify his sobriety.

And, in a larger sense, the entire community benefits when substance abusers reclaim their lives, cutting down on drug-related crimes, such as burglary, assault, vandalism and automobile accidents.

Patricia Thomas, administrative judge in Citrus County, has shepherded the program through its first full year and understands that the key to making this alternative to jail a success is to deal harshly with those who throw away their opportunity to reform. Those who fail to meet their commitments to stay off drugs and receive counseling during the 18-month program are sent to jail.

Drug Court received seed money last year through a $30,000 federal grant, and the County Commission supplemented that with a $25,000 allocation. But the administrator of the program, Raymond Cox, applied for six grants this year and did not get one. Then, the Legislature dashed Cox's hope of getting some money from the State Court Administrator's Office when it cut that agency's budget request.

That means if Drug Court continues, it will be up to the County Commission to pay for it, at least for one more year. It's a worthwhile investment, and we strongly urge the commission to show wisdom and responsibility where the Legislature did not.

Clear-thinking people know that treatment and prevention are the most effective weapons to combat drug use. The tough-on-crime crowd must accept that reality and support funding for programs such as Drug Court, instead of buying mortar and bricks to build more prisons, where non-violent drug offenders are stockpiled to learn from more accomplished felons.

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