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Drug courts a win-win for users, taxpayers

Judge William Schma retired from the Kalamazoo County Circuit Court bench in 2006. Six years later, he still runs into people whose lives turned around thanks to his drug court. Repeatedly. 

"I just got a call from someone graduating from the humanities program at Western Michigan University who wants me to come to graduation," said Schma, a pioneer in Michigan's drug treatment court system. "I bumped into somebody making my sandwich at Subway who said, 'Your program saved my life.'"

Such stories are common among the judges presiding in the 100 drug courts of various sorts and sizes across Michigan. They handled more than 8,300 cases from October 2009 through September 2011, according to the State Court Administrator's Office. They operate in 47 of Michigan's 83 counties, which means both that they are common -- and that there is room for expansion. 

A wealth of research suggests there's plenty of reason to expand, too. Drug offenders and drunken drivers who go through drug courts are far more likely to beat their addictions, get their lives in order and stop committing crimes than those who don't. 

Substance links

Criminal behavior and substance abuse go hand-in-hand:

History of known drug abuse: 15 percent

History of known alcohol abuse: 7 percent

History of both: 47 percent

Total: 69 percent

Source: Michigan Department of Corrections

It costs perhaps $4,500 for a drug treatment program. Real money, to be sure. But far less than the $30,000 or so annual expense for prison, or $20,000 for jail. And nearly 70 percent of the felons who end up in Michigan prisons have a history of drug and/or  alcohol problems.

At a time when Michigan spends nearly $2 billion a year on its corrections system and is struggling to adequately support preschool and higher education, among other things, drug court advocates say it only makes sense to invest in strategies that cost less, salvage lives and protect the public. Gov. Rick Snyder is one of those advocates and has proposed a pilot program with a new funding approach for drug courts in the high-crime cities of Detroit, Flint, Pontiac and Saginaw.

"National research has shown that drug courts are one of the most effective types of diversion programs, and they been successful in Michigan, as well," said Jessica Parks, problem-solving courts manager for the State Court Administrator's Office. 

"It's really not how much it costs. It's how much it saves," said Oakland County District Judge Brian MacKenzie*, president of the Michigan Association of Drug Court Professionals. "Drug courts are the single most effective thing you can do for addicted defendants. They are far more effective and they save far more dollars than any other approach."

Eaton County District Judge Harvey Hoffman, who runs a sobriety court, says there's a reason that Ottawa, Kalamazoo and Eaton counties have among the lowest percentage of felons going to prison. "Each of them operates four or five different types of drug courts," he said. "It's pretty clear that these programs are having a real impact in terms of keeping people in the community and keeping them out of prison."

Two decades of success

Drug courts, first launched in Florida in 1989, are a system of intensive treatment and supervision. The idea is to treat the cases of nonviolent substance-abusing offenders differently than other criminal cases because the addiction is at the root of the criminal activity. Emphasis is on rehabilitation rather than punishment.

Michigan has drug courts for adults, juveniles, family and tribal justice systems. Some 43 of the state's drug courts are sobriety courts, focusing on alcoholics arrested for driving while intoxicated.

People enter drug courts voluntarily, but get prodding from a carrot or a stick, depending on your perspective. Prosecutors and judges give them a choice: Enter drug courts, where they have support and supervision from allies in addressing their addictions, or opt for the traditional criminal justice system, where they'll often wind up in jail or prison.

Participants work with a drug court team that typically includes a judge, prosecutor, defense attorney, probation officer and a drug counselor. Participants undergo substance abuse testing frequently and earn rewards or sanctions. Most arrive with suspicions, advocates, say, but come to realize their team wants them to succeed.

"Once they do, it's huge," said Schma, who is now a consultant to American University on drug courts." It means an enormous amount to an individual to have a judge at a court hearing in front of their peers say, 'Boy, you have done wonders. I'm really proud of you,' and have a prosecutor stand up and say the same thing, and a police officer."

Drug courts change behavior, says Jeffrey Sauter, a no-nonsense Republican prosecutor in Eaton County, just west of Lansing. It was one of the first counties in the state to launch a drug court and now, each of its judges runs one.

"We used to do things the old way, where you try to incarcerate someone like a habitual drunken driver for as long as you could, because you are at least protecting the public while the person is incarcerated," Sauter explained. "The treatment approach focuses on the underlying substance abuse problem. I'm convinced that treatment can work."

The drawback to treatment programs is that people with substance abuse problems often don't want to complete them, he said. But prosecutors and judges provide an incentive for persistence, enabling offenders to stay out of jails and prisons, or to serve shorter sentences. 

"We offer a reduced charge," Sauter said. "The only way you get the reduction is if you go in the program."

Drug courts are not just about second and third chances. A key goal of drug courts is to reduce crime -- both drug offenses, and other criminal activity used to support offenders' drug habits. State and national data overwhelmingly demonstrate success. The National Association of Drug Court Professionals reports that more than three quarters of drug courts significantly reduce crime.

In Michigan, the effectiveness of drug courts was measured by comparing offenders who went through the drug court system with similar offenders who did not. These are some of the findings in the 2011 annual report:

* Less than 9 percent of those who completed drug court were convicted of new offenses within two years of entering drug court, half the rate of their non-drug-court counterparts.

* Less than 6 percent of drug court graduates were convicted of new drug or alcohol offenses within two years, compared with more than 11 percent of the comparison group.

* Only 5 percent of sobriety court graduates were convicted of a new offense within two years, less than one-third the comparison group.

Judge MacKenzie's results have been nothing short of remarkable. He handles about 120 cases a year in his sobriety court and over the past nine years has had only 26 people re-arrested on a drunken-driving charge, for an effective recidivism rate of 3 percent. In one year, 2009, the recidivism rate actually reached zero.

Drug courts are frequently fine-tuning their procedures in response to new laws and new research. Eaton County is among counties piloting a program that allows twice-convicted drunken drivers, after a 45-day hard suspension, to get a restricted driver's license to get to work, school and treatment -- if they install ignition interlocks that require them to blow into alcohol detectors to start the car. 

In a first-year review of the pilot program, 84 people received restricted licenses. None has been re-arrested for drunken driving.

Evaluations of drug court programs consistently show them to save tax dollars, a critical issue in Michigan. The National Association of Drug Court Professionals says that drug courts provide direct benefits to the criminal justice system of $2.21 for every one dollar invested, reflecting fewer re-arrests, less law enforcement contact, fewer court hearings and reduced use of jail and prison beds.

Still, one of the biggest barriers to new drug courts is cost, both to get them up and running and to sustain them. They require additional probation officers with smaller caseloads, intensive treatment, frequent drug testing, as well as the time spent by prosecutors and judges who give the cases extra attention. Courts typically begin programs with the help of federal and state grants, but federal grants are scheduled for deep cuts in the next two years.

Snyder has proposed a new funding approach to support new drug courts in Detroit, Flint, Pontiac and Saginaw, four communities that rank high in violent crime. He has called for high-risk, high-need courts supported by $4,500-per-person in state funding.

"That way, the amount of money that the court gets actually mirrors the number of participants in the program," Snyder spokesman Ken Silfven said via email. "We believe that doing it this way will encourage the courts to expand their populations, which of course means assistance for more offenders in our target areas of Wayne, Oakland, Genesee and Saginaw counties."

Silfven said it's too early to talk about taking the program statewide:

"For now, we are focused on our target areas," he said. "Having said that, the governor believes that drug courts are a valuable asset to the criminal justice system and is eager to see the success of this proposed initiative before any further expansion is considered."

* CORRECTION: Judge Brian MacKenzie's title and court location were listed incorrectly in the original version of this story.

Chris Andrews is senior editor at Public Policy Associates, Inc. In addition to working as a freelance writer and editor, he teaches journalism at Michigan State University. Andrews was an editor at the Lansing State Journal and a reporter at the Rochester, N.Y., Times-Union.

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