A funding shortfall for drug courts could trip up changes approved in the previous Arkansas legislative session designed to keep non-violent offenders out of maximum security prison beds.
Drug court professionals in Arkansas say they are worried about major funding cuts to the drug court program that pay for expenses, including treatment centers that do the heavy lifting in helping non-violent criminals deal with their addictions. This summer, their association passed a resolution outlining their concerns about a shortage of critical funds.
"Drug courts are the most successful criminal justice program in recent American history. They work," said Circuit Judge Robert Herzfeld, whose Saline County court works with drug offenders.
In short, nearly $1.5 million in tobacco settlement money has been stripped from the drug court system and the Arkansas Department of Community Correction (DCC) has sliced discretionary funding for the courts to just $500,000 in the current fiscal year. In previous years, drug courts and their stakeholders worked with $2.5 million to $3 million.
"We’re going to be out of money to provide extra and needed treatment resources by October, and we’ve got all the way to next July 1st to finish out," warns Herzfeld.
He cites numerous cases of individuals who have turned their lives around through the tough standards imposed by the courts and the treatment they receive from professionals who help them break their addictive habits.
The end result is that criminals, whose offenses once burdened the court system and cost millions in tax dollars, actually return to society as law-abiding, tax-paying citizens.
Herzfeld suggests that one of the main reasons funding for the successful programs has fallen through the cracks is that no one is in charge of them.
"The issue we’re facing in Arkansas right now is that, frankly, there’s nobody and no individual agency who has drug courts as their responsibility," Herzfeld said.
While the DCC provides money for drug courts, it is also responsible for many other areas of prison and parole functions. There is not a dedicated staff person charged with monitoring or advocating for drug court needs at DCC.
THE LAST LEGISLATIVE SESSION
In the last legislative session, State Sen. Bill Pritchard, R-Elkins, led the charge to secure money for the drug court system. He had been successful in earlier years by obtaining tobacco settlement funds and garnering commitments from the DCC to cover some of the courts’ costs.
But drug courts have never had a dedicated line item or revenue stream that was certain. Pritchard argues that the relatively small amount of money for these courts and their programs pay for themselves many times over by rehabilitating citizens.
"It’s absolutely essential that we put this small amount of money in a line item year after year to keep people out of prison, get them off drugs, and get them paying taxes and becoming productive, tax-paying citizens again," he contends.
Pritchard quotes a number of statistics from testimony given in committee last session by corrections officials and drug court professionals. He says that nearly 47% of the criminals in the state prison system are for drug crimes. That number jumps to nearly 75% when you factor in drug-related crimes, such as theft or forgery for criminals feeding their habits.
As of July 2011, there were 2,111 cases in drug courts across Arkansas.
He argues that the success rate for drug courts is nearly 80%, while recidivism rates are below 6%. And the small amount of funding that has been in the programs is only addressing about 5% of those that it could.
"If we could stop drug abuse problems, we’ll start emptying prison beds in volumes," Pritchard said.
In the last session, the comprehensive sentencing reform bill, Act 570, didn’t address drug courts directly. It did, however, alter a number of drug-related offenses moving them into categories that allowed for more lenient punishment and advanced monitoring in some instances.
Much discussion centered on the ability of parole officers being able to track non-violent offenders through ankle-monitoring devices, which can detect drug usage as well as whereabouts.
The conversation also involved the ability of drug courts to make a dent in keeping offenders out of maximum security prison space. The reforms aimed to put drug traffickers and career drug criminals in prison, but find alternatives for low-level drug users or those who were more likely a threat to themselves, not others.
The reforms, outlined in a January 2011 Pew Center report and touted in a capitol press conference, also sought to launch pilot programs for random drug testing and develop uniform eligibility criteria and performance measures for drug courts.
IN SEARCH OF A SOLUTION
For now, key budget legislators are committed to finding a permanent funding solution in the upcoming fiscal session.
They could raid a portion of the $94 million budget surplus for more immediate needs, but there is interest in finding a more viable, long-term dedicated revenue stream.
Joint Budget co-chairs Sen. Gilbert Baker, R-Conway, and Rep. Kathy Webb, D-Little Rock, say they are "totally committed" to solving this dilemma.
Webb, a member of the Governor’s sentencing reform working group, has employed drug court graduates in her restaurant business.
"From my perspective, this [drug court] is one of the best programs we have," Webb said. "It works. It was a huge part of corrections reform and it is a lot better investment for taxpayers in terms of corrections costs."
She also expects this topic to come up at a Sept. 7 organizational meeting of a legislative task force on substance abuse.
Baker echoes Webb’s sentiments and maintains he’ll pursue the matter as a budget priority in the 2012 fiscal session. But he warns that with a funding shortfall in the current fiscal year, Gov. Mike Beebe (D) and the Department of Community Corrections will have to step in and find a stop-gap solution.
"The responsibility there will come back to the DCC making us aware of the specific need, or the October shortfall the judges have talked about, and then the Governor will have to weigh in with some of the discretionary funding he has since we’re not in session," Baker said.
Beebe spokesman Grant Tennille said the drug court judges have reached out to the Governor, who is searching for a solution.
"The Governor recognizes that drug court is part of the answer for all of the problems that we’ve been having with our jail population growing, our prisons becoming overcrowded," Tennille said. "The difficulty right now is there aren’t a whole lot of pots of unallocated money lying around out there to find them the one-time funding they’re looking for to get them through the rest of this fiscal year."
Tennille said one area of examination is in the Arkansas Department of Human Services’ division of behavioral health. That division can tap Medicaid money for certain eligible citizens and may provide partial funding to make up the expected $2 million shortfall.
While Beebe has not made any commitment to a solution for the fiscal session, Tennille contends he is supportive of finding one.
"It’s something we know we’ve got to continue to look at," he said.