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Editorial: Despite hurdles, expanding drug courts is worth doing

May. 09, 2013 @ 11:48 PM

One of the key components of legislation approved last month to address overcrowding in West Virginia's state prisons and regional jails won't be easy to accomplish, but it's a strategy that gets to the heart of the problem.

Among other things, the bill approved by the Legislature and sent to Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin requires that every county participate in drug court programs by July 2016. These drug courts, now operating in 30 of the state's 55 counties, use strict drug treatment and testing as an alternative to prison sentences. So long as the participants meet the requirements of the program and stay away from drugs, they can avoid time behind bars.

Expanding the use of drug courts statewide only made sense, since the goal of the prison overcrowding bill was to reduce the number of people sent to prison and jails, and substance abuse is the leading reason why those facilities are filled beyond capacity now.

Drug courts have been found to be far more effective in reducing repeat offenses among participants than traditional incarceration. Nationwide, only about a fifth of offenders who have gone through drug courts have been arrested for new crimes, whereas for others the recidivism rate is as high as 80 percent. It's clear why drug courts should be used as a tool, both to hold down prison and jail populations but more importantly to turn people away from substance abuse and a life of crime.

There are indeed obstacles to overcome, however, according to officials in a recent report by the Charleston Daily Mail.

Counties where no drug courts operate now will have to add staff to set up and operate the courts, including the classes that are part of the routine. Judges will have to take on bigger workloads. In as many as 20 counties, treatment services will have to be made available through either private providers or some other means. And, in some counties, attitudes will have to change for the programs to be the most effective. Some local court officials in the past have been opposed to establishing drug courts.

Expanding drug courts will indeed have a cost, and the state's policymakers will have to be prepared to pay it. The prison overcrowding bill does provide $25 million over the next five years for increased supervision, most of it for drug treatment. Whether that will foot the bill for expanding drug courts and beefing up addiction treatment services remains unclear. It's well-known that the availability of treatment services is woefully lacking in West Virginia, particularly in light of how extensive the substance abuse problem is in the Mountain State.

But the payoffs for investing in ways to minimize the inmate population and to battle substance abuse are obvious. For one, the state may be able to avoid spending up to $200 million for a new prison. Another is that drug courts have been proven to work, and that could mean salvaging the lives of many abusers and limiting the unwanted ramifications that go with addiction.

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