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Balancing Public Safety with Fiscal Responsibility

Levin notes that drug courts cost 75% less than incarceration. “It currently costs about $18,300 annually per prisoner, while drug courts cost about $3,000.” This means that drug court can process about six drug offenders for the cost of one incarceration.

Reddy says that drug courts pay for themselves. “Using drug courts in lieu of criminal prosecution and incarceration saves money. Because they’ve been successful, we now have extra prison beds. In Texas, all three budget proposals (governor, Senate, House) include shutting some prison space down. There’s no reason to direct tax dollars towards them when they’re not needed.”

As for being tough on crime, Levin and Reddy say drug courts require personal responsibility. Chemical dependency treatment is usually mandatory, as is restitution. Staying out of prison offers many positive motives: e.g., remaining with family, being able to work, not losing voting rights.

Levin says one important difference between drug courts and regular probation is that a judge oversees the drug court probationer, instead of a probation officer who may have a heavy caseload. The judge has the ability to deliver immediate consequences, such as revoking probation or referring to treatment. This immediate feedback lends itself to reinforcing the message of personal responsibility.

Returning to victims' rights, being put on probation via drug court can have a positive outcome as well. For example, in Texas, probationers paid $46.8 million in restitution in 2008, compared to $501,000 by inmates and $1.2 million by parolees.

Reddy says drug courts are a diversion program to offer a way to stay out of prison. Levin says depending on the situation, in-patient or out-patient treatment programs are both valid options. Both note that if the offender declines court-ordered treatment, the judge can revoke probation/deferment immediately.

Levin notes: “Many drug courts only take first time offenders. They do a risk assessment and see who’s appropriate for diversion.”

Reddy sees drug court as a way to keep juvenile drug offenders out of the prison system, where they risk becoming hardened criminals and costing society even more: “About 50% of all high school students have tried an illegal drug. We want to reduce that figure without incarcerating 50% of high school students.”

Reddy believes options like drug courts are a win-win: “People often leave prison worse than before they went in. Prisons are graduate schools for crime. Regardless of the analytical model you use, it’s clearly less expensive to limit recidivism, as more offenders become productive members of society.”