Judge says drug courts worth investment

Tuesday, October 14, 2003

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. -- State Supreme Court Judge William Ray Price Jr. told a panel of lawmakers and judges on Tuesday that an increased investment in special drug courts would save the state money in the long run by keeping more offenders out of prison.

Drug courts were founded in St. Louis and Kansas City in the early 1990s and today are functioning in 35 of Missouri's 45 judicial circuits.

The program's goal is to help drug offenders turn their lives around by undergoing substance-abuse treatment and submitting to intense court supervision. Those completing the program, which generally takes a year, can avoid prison.

Price called illegal drug use the "single greatest factor" contributing to crime nationally. However, he said locking up offenders is expensive and doesn't improve their behavior.

"We do a far better job of keeping people on the straight and narrow path than prison," Price said of drug courts.

Committee appearance

The judge made his comments before the Joint Interim Committee on Judicial Resources, which is studying how to continue funding vital court operations amid state budget cuts.

The state budget includes $3.3 million for drug courts -- about half of what had been requested for the current fiscal year. State money accounts for two-thirds of drug-court funding, with the federal government providing the remainder. Jurisdictions with drug courts, to varying degrees, also receive some local funding.

As drug courts become more popular, additional funding will be required, Price said. However, he called the success of drug courts worth the investment.

It costs $3,000 to $5,000 a year to send one person through the program, far less than the $13,000 a year in direct costs to the taxpayer for housing one inmate.

Factoring in the cost of building and maintaining new prisons, the actual expense of incarceration is much higher. Price said one national study put the annual cost at $50,000 per inmate.

While saving money is a positive side effect, Price said the real benefit is a reduction in recidivism.

Of those who have graduated from drug court, only 10 percent offend again. Among those who spend time in prison, the recidivism rate is 45 percent.

Because of the strict requirements imposed on drug-court participants, only 50 percent graduate.

"If they graduate, their odds of making it are very good," Price said.

mpowers@semissourian.com

(573) 635-4608

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