St. Louis Public Radio News
12:08 pm
Mon March 29, 2010

Lawmakers, judges say expanding drug courts will save taxpayer money

St. Louis – Missouri has more people in prison than ever before, many of them non-violent offenders. And while the state already has 108 drug and DWI courts some say more are needed.

They argue expanding the program would save millions of dollars in the long run.

In the midst of Missouri's budget crisis, the special court programs are getting more attention as lawmakers try to close a big budget gap.

St. Louis Public Radio's Maria Altman reports.

Five years ago Andrea Barin was arrested for possession of heroin and ecstasy. She was given a choice: jail or drug court.

She chose drug court, a two year program that required her to get a job and stay clean. Today she describes a much different life.

"Working full time, school part time, I teach Sunday school on Sundays. My big girl goes to ballet on Saturdays," Barin said.

The 28-year old made time this winter to speak to members of the Missouri House. Barin says she wants lawmakers to understand drug courts help create productive citizens, while jail does not.

"I could have sat in jail and thought about what I did, or better yet, thought about how I could have done it better without getting caught or gone through the drug court program, which helped save my life," she said. "Sometimes it's better for a kid to clean up the mess than sit in the corner and think about it."

Barin is not the only one bending lawmakers' ears about drug courts. Missouri's Supreme Court chief Justice William Ray Price, Jr. used his State of the Judiciary Address last month to encourage those at the Capitol to expand the program. But Prices' appeal, in the midst of a budget crunch, was more about dollars and cents.

"Perhaps the biggest waste of resources in all of state government is the over-incarceration of nonviolent offenders and our mishandling of drug and alcohol offenders," he said. "It is costing us millions of dollars and it is not making a dent in crime."

The chief justice says Missouri spends $233 million a year to incarcerate non-violent offenders or those arrested on drug or DWI charges. And he says when they're released more than 41% are back in prison within two years.

By contrast, Price told lawmakers Missouri's drug courts cost one-fourth to one-fifth of what it takes to lock someone up. And just 10% of those who graduate from drug court wind up back in the system.

Those numbers may help sway some traditionally "tough on crime" politicians, as they face gloomy fiscal projections.

Republican House member Bryan Stevenson says lawmakers will likely have to shave $500 million to $1 billion in state spending over the next two years.

"We're talking about shutting an entire prison, that's the kind of size of cuts we're talking about," Stevenson said. "We can either just close them and turn people loose or we can have a framework and a system whereby they can be monitored when they're released into the community. And that's what we've got to do."

Stevenson, the chairman of the House Judiciary committee, has introduced legislation overhauling Missouri's DWI laws. As part of his bill, he's proposed expanding drug and DWI courts to keep people out of jail and even releasing non-violent offenders early if they go through drug treatment while in prison.

But even supporters say it may be tough to get funding for the expansion right away, even if it saves money in the long run. Ann Wilson is the executive director of the Missouri Association of Drug Court Professionals.

"I think the bottom line is that there's just no money to spread around, even though I would love to see money going into these programs because I do believe it is a cost savings," she said.

But Wilson says while the money may not be forthcoming this year, she hopes Stevenson's legislation will pass in order to lay the groundwork for the future.

For St. Louis Public Radio, I'm Maria Altman.