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Government, Politics & Issues

Courting support: Expanding drug courts would save taxpayers money, judges tell state senators

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Jan. 13, 2011 - Missouri's drug courts are saving the state's taxpayers the annual equivalent costs of two additional prisons, said state Supreme Court Chief Justice William Ray Price Jr. as he lobbied Wednesday for state lawmakers to expand the program.

About 3,000 nonviolent drug offenders are dealt with aeach year by the drug courts, the judge said, explaining that they levy treatment and punishment aimed at keeping them out of prison.

"The (state's) goal for nonviolent offenders is to make them the better people that we want them to be," Price said during a state Senate "Rebooting Government" session Wednesday afternoon that focused on the courts, prisons and law enforcement.

Trouble is, he continued, about a quarter of Missouri's counties -- largely rural -- don't have drug courts. That means drug offenders in those 30 counties often end up in state prisons, where officials say they spend close to $17 a day in state money for each prisoner's care.

"The biggest problem we have, is that (the drug courts) are not funded to capacity," Price said. "Every year we have requests for twice as much money as we have."

What the public and politicians need to understand, the judge said, is that drug courts -- and the treatments that they require nonviolent offenders to complete -- have a higher success rate as well as saving money.

Price and state Supreme Court Judge Mike Wolff called for an expansion of "family drug courts," where officials deal with parents who are drug abusers, and for more "re-entry drug courts," where courts monitor defendents who have gone through drug treatment.

"Drug re-entry courts are essential to make sure you're not wasting your money," Wolff said.

Overall, Price, who was appointed by a Republican governor, making him a popular figure among Republican legislative leaders, said that he believed the state's court system is run "as efficiently and leanly as we can."

The court system could save more money with added automation, the chief judge continued, but it has repeatedly eliminated such modernization funds because of state budget problems.

The chairman of the panel -- state Sen. Jack Goodman, R-Mt. Vernon -- conducted the session in just under an hour. He told his audience, made up largely of judges, judicial staff, prosecutors and law enforcement, that he wasn't going to get into some of the beefs that some legislators have with Missouri's judicial selection system, nor did he want to rehash issues that had been aired during last year's session.

Goodman said that the state Senate will deal with those larger, more philosophical matters.

The judicial session of the rebooting government closed out the second of three days of hearings (and seven panels) set up by state Senate President Pro Tem Rob Mayer, R-Dexter, to review the public's suggestions -- and offer some of their own -- on how state government can be operated with less money and more efficiency.

Earlier Wednesday, panels heard proposals for improving the investment programs for the state pension systems and debated ideas for the state's social-service agencies and social-welfare programs for the poor, elderly and disabled.

That latter session ran for two hours, as the senators peppered state officials with questions about how best to deal with the state and federal Medicaid program to provide health care for the poor.

Senators asked whether state managed care could be cheaper than fee for service; representatives from state agencies replied that their cost-benefit analysis had determined that managed care would be more expensive, especially during the initial year.

Senators also pondered how they could further tighten eligibility standards for state aid without running afoul of federal mandates. In Missouri, the federal government provides roughly a 2-to-1 match with state spending.

Several senators questioned why the state doesn't include the income of stepparents or live-in boyfriends and girlfriends in determining the eligibility of children for benefits, especially health care. Social service administrators replied that current federal law bars counting the income of people who are not the parents or legal guardians of the children.

State Sen. Rob Schaaf, R-St. Joseph and a physician, said he had seen in his medical practice too many people who were receiving disability benefits but were not disabled, in Schaaf's opinion, or people who had been denied benefits but were clearly disabled.

Schaaf suggested that legislators, and social-service agencies, consider mandating that all people applying for social-service benefits submit to a "retinal scan'' so that authorities could verify their identities.

The issue of requiring drug tests of benefit recipients also arose. The Missouri House has put such a bill on the fast track, with a committee overwhelmingly approving it Wednesday.

Chairman Scott Rupp, R-Wentzville, suggested that many of the state's social-service divisions and departments be combined so that people seeking benefits would have to go to the same office to be assessed, approved or rejected.

Rupp said he suspected that, currently, there was too much "duplication of services."

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