A baffling decision

A baffling decision

- in Fitzsimon File

The 2011-2012 General Assembly made a host of troubling decisions in the last two years on everything from education to environmental policy.

In most cases lawmakers offered at least some claims or evidence or some ideology to support their actions, however misleading or misguided they were.

But a few decisions were simply baffling regardless of your political philosophy, policy views, or partisan leanings. One of them was the legislative leaders’ insistence on ending all funding for the state’s drug treatment courts.

The courts are one of the state’s success stories. They provide a tough but effective treatment option for drug offenders which allows them to stay out of prison, stay with their families, and often pay restitution to their victims, all while turning their lives around.

It not only helps the offender, it saves the state big money. The program costs a few thousand dollars for each participant, roughly a tenth of the almost $30,000 year it costs to keep them behind bars.

Numerous studies show the program works. One found that 75 percent of the graduates of drug court were arrest free two years after finishing the program.

It is one of a handful of programs supported by both prosecutors and advocates for alternatives to incarceration. In fact, it’s hard to find anyone who thinks the drug courts are a bad idea.

But that didn’t stop budget writers in 2011 from ending state support for the operations of the program. Then lawmakers came back this summer and abolished state funding for the treatment services that the program provides.

The rationale for this year’s cuts was that the operations funding had been cut the year before. That doesn’t make any sense. They could have restored it instead of course, it was only a few million dollars in a $20 billion budget, but they decided to end the funding entirely.

No legislator publicly questioned the drug court’s effectiveness or the long term savings it could provide, not to mention giving people the chance to turn their lives around.

A few lawmakers did complain that not every county had a drug court, which was true.

They were only operating in less than half the state’s 100 counties, though plans were underway to expand when more funding became available. There doesn’t seem to be much logic in eliminating a highly successful program that saves money and lives because it isn’t in place everywhere.

Republicans and Democrats across the country support drug courts, so it’s not really a partisan issue. Republican Governor Chris Christie recently began requiring that nonviolent drug offenders enter treatment programs instead of prison, saying drug addiction is an illness that needs to be treated.

Supporting drug treatment courts also doesn’t mean you are soft on crime. District attorneys and law enforcement officials are some of the strongest proponents of the program.

A couple of years ago the Wilmington Star-News reported on the graduation ceremony of seven people who had completed the Brunswick County drug court program. They included a woman who had been addicted to heroin since she was 17.

She was arrested in 2009 and entered the drug treatment program the following summer and graduated drug free while managing to keep her job and maintain her relationship with her family. That woman would have been sent to prison if the drug court hadn’t existed.

Drug offenders from now on are not likely to have that second chance because of the decisions made by state lawmakers in the last two years. And the state will spend $30,000 to keep the offenders locked up instead.

Somebody needs to explain how that makes any sense.

About the author

Chris Fitzsimon, Founder and Executive Director of N.C. Policy Watch, writes the Fitzsimon File, delivers a radio commentary broadcast on WRAL-FM and hosts "News and Views," a weekly radio news magazine that airs on multiple stations across North Carolina.