This working policy brief by West Virginia Center on Budget and Policy intern Luke Yingling explores drug courts in West Virginia, including outcomes, savings, and the potential to expand their presence in the Mountain State.
A Look At Drug Courts In West Virginia
The traditional criminal justice system often produces poor outcomes for drug-addicted offenders, failing to address underlying symptoms fueling criminal behavior. In an effort to curb demand for illegal substances while also reducing re-arrest rates, alternative sentencing methods involving substance abuse treatment were devised in the late 1980’s.
Miami-Dade County, Florida created the nation’s first drug court in 1989, intended to funnel drug addicts away from incarceration and toward rehabilitative programs. Drug courts are the marriage of probationary and mental health principles, intended to reduce recidivism by halting drug abuse.
West Virginia’s northern panhandle established the state’s first adult drug court programs in 2005, with programs in Brooke, Hancock, Ohio, and Marshall Counties. Since then, adult drug courts have proliferated across the state, graduating 1,002 participants since their conception. With 31 distinct drug courts currently serving 46 West Virginia counties, the state aims to ensure that they are treating program participants, also called clients, who are likely to recidivate without intervention and rehabilitation.
Who’s Eligible for Drug Courts?
In accordance with West Virginia Code §62-15-6, West Virginia Adult Drug Courts accept felony offenders who have committed a non-violent crime stemming from their habitual drug use. West Virginia’s Adult Drug Courts accept high-risk, high-need clients, mandating that all potential program participants are administered the Level of Service/ Case Management Inventory (LS/CMI). The LS/CMI aims to assess the likelihood that a client will reoffend without intervention and treatment, also serving as tool for tailoring specialized case management plans. Acceptance into a drug court program is ultimately contingent upon a referral to the program.
Impacts on Recidivism and Cost Savings
Drug court programs reduce recidivism through a concerted rehabilitation effort involving law enforcement, case management specialists, treatment specialists, prosecutors, defense attorneys, and community members. Participants are monitored, randomly tested for illicit substances to assure they maintain sobriety, and are in regular contact with their treatment supervisors, probation officer, and drug court judge. A treatment strategy is tailored for each client, intended to address their specific needs.
As of 2013, the most recent year that West Virginia Adult Drug Court cost and recidivism data was released, a year stint in prison cost $24,000, the same period of time in jail cost $18,250, and a year in drug court cost $7,100. Considering the cost of jail as of 2013, if the 1,002 drug court graduates had served a year sentence in jail rather than an equal term in drug court, the cost savings would total more than $11 million. Yet, these are only the direct program savings and do not consider the larger, long-term estimated range of savings that are primarily owed to reduced recidivism rates.
A meta-analysis of probationary programs that focus on treating high-risk clients, tailoring case management programs to suit the specific needs of that client, found that those programs typically yield a return of $3.42 for every dollar invested. The programs studied utilized “Risk Need Responsivity” principles, such as the LS/CMI used in West Virginia Adult Drug Courts, to identify high-risk clients and create programs that can best address the symptoms fueling their criminal behavior. Because West Virginia Adult Drug Courts have graduated 1,002 participants, spending $7,100 per participant, per year, the Mountain State and its counties may have saved more than $24 million since the programs were introduced, based on the findings of the study.
Issues and Recommendations
A portion of the cost savings experienced by drug courts is derived from a client’s diversion from a more costly incarceration in jail or prison and their less costly placement in drug court. At least theoretically, it is conceivable that an individual would plead guilty to a charge in hopes of being referred to drug court, where they could have that charge expunged (in the case of misdemeanor charges) or reduced to a lesser charge upon completion of the program. However, acceptance is contingent upon a referral and there is no guarantee of a referral.
Some criminologists contend that long-term, inpatient treatment is the preferable rehabilitative strategy, not drug courts. One issue, according to some researchers, is drug court’s punishment and potential dismissal from the program for drug relapses. Treatment specialists assert that many clients break from sobriety multiple times in the process of spurning their habitual drug use and that dismissal from rehabilitative programs for that reason is counterproductive.
Additionally, minorities are underrepresented in drug court programs nationally (data specific to West Virginia is not available). Understanding that drug courts lack diversity at the national level West Virginia’s judges, public defenders, defense attorneys, law enforcement, and prosecutors must make a conscious effort to refer minority clients.
Lastly, if West Virginia were to enhance its data infrastructure and collection they might be able to do a better job of providing substantial data on their courts, making it possible to perform more extensive cost savings analysis on their programs. While it is possible to calculate direct savings from the program, long-term savings from recidivism and other factors is difficult to exactly determine given the lack of available datum.
A meta-analysis of drug courts nationwide reveal that programs are only serving about one half of the total eligible population and only 5 percent of all offenders with substance abuse issues. An additional investment of $5 million, assuming that all dollars are allocated toward expanding program capacity and treating new clients, may result in the graduation of an estimated 360 new participants (considering the 52 percent program graduation rate).
Those 360 graduates processed through drug court rather than jail may save upward of $4 million in direct savings and nearly an estimated $9 million in long-term savings. Therefore, increasing the adult drug court budget an additional $5 million may yield a return of $13 million (on top of the previously estimated $10-30 million).
Citizens who hope to see drug court programs granted the additional funding they need to treat a higher volume of clients and save West Virginia tax payers additional dollars can speak with their representatives about taking action if the Supreme Court fails to increase funding for drug court programs.
Judge Patricia Kelle
Professor Kara Fisher, University of Charlesto
Professor Hallie Dunlap, University of Charleston
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