More low-level drug offenders in Tulare County are choosing to serve jail time than pay thousands of dollars to participate in a program designed to help them kick their addiction and get their lives back on track, according to figures released this week by a Tulare County Superior Court judge.
Tulare County's Adult Drug Court offers help to low-level offenders — those facing two to six years for drug possession and transportation convictions — by keeping them out of jail or prison and enrolling them in a rigorous 18-to-22-month judge-supervised treatment and education program.
However, due mainly to the cost up to $6,000 per person the number of offenders opting into the county's drug court has dropped by about a third in the last two years, from 600 to 400 offenders, said Judge Glade Roper, who oversees the drug court with Judge Gary Paden.
The drop illustrates the far-reaching effect of the recession, and its ramifications for the crowded jail and prison system, Roper said.
"A lot of [drug offenders] are opting to go to jail because they can't find jobs [to pay for the program]," he said.
Yet that same arrangement, requiring offenders pay for their participation in drug court — the annual cost has risen as high as $1.8 million — could be what is keeping Tulare County's program afloat in these hard times, Roper added.
Programs scrapped elsewhere
Cash-strapped counties from Oregon to Kentucky have scrapped their drug court programs recently because they funded treatment with tax dollars and couldn't defend the programs' cost when other services and jobs were on the chopping block.
"We haven't had to worry about that issue because here [those costs] are paid by the offenders," Roper said. "Our philosophy has been that if [offenders] are financially invested in their recovery they will value it more."
Judge: Court is good investment
The drug court is funded out of the Tulare County Superior Court's annual general fund, which the state has pared back through recent cuts to about $29.9 million.
One result of those cuts: Starting Thursday, the Dinuba division of Tulare County Superior Court will no longer handle criminal and limited-jurisdiction civil cases, which will be shifted to Visalia. (The Dinuba branch will continue to hear small claims, traffic and unlawful detainer cases, plus child support matters now being handled in Visalia.)
Annual operation costs for the drug court total about $320,000, according to state and county estimates. That figure includes a portion of Roper's and Paden's annual salaries the judges each dedicate one day a week to drug court and staff costs.Roper said the program is a good investment for taxpayers. Only about 5 percent of drug court graduates are back in custody within three years of their original conviction, while more than 70 percent of drug offenders who don't go through drug court return with a new conviction in about 18 months, he said.
"That's while I feel so strongly about [the benefits] of this drug court program," Roper said.
Also, for every offender kept out of county jail, taxpayers save about $25,000 per year, or about $50,000 in the case of a state inmate, he said.
Academy-award-winning composer, singer and actor Paul Williams will speak this Thursday to the drug court's 13th graduating class. Because of a carryover group of 30 participants from last year, that class is record-size — 186 members — and should make a good audience for William's message about battling through addiction, Roper said.
Williams, best known for his performances in the "Smokey and the Bandit" movies, is a former cocaine and alcohol addict who completed studies at UCLA to become a certified drug rehabilitation counselor. He has been sober for 19 years.
"He is a shining example of how people with tremendous talent can be enslaved by drugs, and how recovery allows them to reach their full potential," Paden said.
By Brett Wilkison
September 28, 2009