As we reported last week, funding for the state’s popular and successful drug court programs is facing a severe budget shortfall as two key revenue sources were altered during the last legislative session.
The cuts could trip up changes approved in the previous session designed to keep non-violent offenders out of maximum security prison beds.
In short, nearly $1.5 million in tobacco settlement money was redirected from the drug court system, and the Arkansas Department of Community Correction (DCC) 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.
"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.
"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," Herzfeld warned.
Arkansas Gov. Mike Beebe (D) discussed the matter publicly for the first time since our report at a press conference on Monday (you can view the video Q&A below). Beebe insisted the funding shortfall was not an oversight and said drug courts were a crucial part of comprehensive prison overcrowding reform. Where the make-up money will come from is not a decision he’s prepared to make yet.
"It’s one of those priority items like Medicaid. It’s one of those priority items we have to do as a state to protect our people," Beebe said. "It was a priority in the budget, there was extra money in there and there was extra flexibility in the budget process for that potential. I’m just not willing to commit right now."
The Governor said there were 3 areas of flexibility on emergency money, or "rainy day" money, that he discussed with legislators during budget negotiations. Those three areas were drug courts, corrections and Medicaid.
"Obviously, the more that you need for corrections — to keep violent folks locked up — the less you’ve got available for Medicaid, the less you’ve got available for drug courts and vice-versa," he said.
Beebe’s office says they are working to find additional revenue to make up for the shortfall. Spokesman Grant Tennille tells Talk Business that there are limited options being researched, which include:
- Accessing Medicaid dollars through the Dept. of Human Services’ behavioral health division
- Collecting new revenues from a newly-passed increase in fines imposed on low-level drug offenders
- Tapping the Governor’s emergency fund
But how much could these sources raise to restore drug court funding? The answer is elusive at this point.
Tennille said state finance officials are trying to assess how much money could fund drug courts through the DHS alternative and new drug fines. It is presently unclear whether drug courts are optimizing their use of eligible defendants being enrolled in Medicaid and more research is underway to analyze this option.
As for the increase in fines — a measure passed in the 2011 session — Tennille said, "The bill should generate some revenue for drug courts, but it’s very difficult to determine a precise amount because it is dependent on fines associated with particular drug convictions. That number will fluctuate based on arrests, plea agreements and defendants’ ability to pay."
Though Tennille didn’t mention it, funding could be restored partially or in its entirety through DCC’s existing budget, but that could mean applying less money to violent criminal lock-ups. A final option includes the Governor releasing money from emergency funds, but Beebe isn’t prepared to go there yet.
"That’s always an option, but I’m not prepared to commit to that now," Beebe said.