One Bad Example Of False Economy
T here's economy, and then there's such a thing as false economy. A good example of the former would appear to be the operation of North Carolina's system of drug-treatment courts, which specialize in working with a particular segment of the population: people who have been driven to commit crimes to support expensive drug habits.
The U.S. Justice Department thinks highly enough of our state's program to have rated it as "very effective" at achieving its goals of (1) helping criminal drug abusers get clean and (2) preventing them from getting reinvolved in crime.
The example of false economy can be found in the recent decision by the General Assembly to cut $2 million from the budget of the drug courts. Of the 26 such courts in the state, six will have to close as a result of the reduction. The others will continue on county budgets, with reduced activity.
Sentencing Services Also Hit
Moore County doesn't have a drug court, so it's not directly involved in this situation. But it has been impacted by a related action: cuts in the budget for "sentencing services," a program that seeks out alternatives to time behind bars for certain offenders.
Granted, we're in a time of severe economic stress, and lawmakers have to cut spending to make ends meet, especially if they're newly ascendant Republicans who have sworn an oath on the Bible and on the altar of Grover Norquist not to approve any revenue increases, not now, not ever.
But even if you put bleeding-heart warm fuzzies aside and look at the thing with a cold economic eye, hacking away at these programs seems like a counterproductive exercise.
Why? Because it costs $27,134 a year to send a drug offender to prison or back to prison, according to the federal study - more than four times the estimated $6,000 it takes for a drug court to route a convict into an intensive probation and treatment program.
It's not hard to see how savings of that magnitude, spread out over a year and across more than two dozen localities, could quickly add up to more than $2 million.
Back to the Revolving Door?
But there's more. Consider also another finding of the study: Those who had been through the drug courts were considerably less likely to return to drug use than other prisoners. And more important, they were far less likely to return to a life of crime - and to find their way once again through the expensive revolving door of the court and prison system.
Granted, the drug-treatment courts may not have been successful in every case. Much seems to have depended on the judges presiding over them, some of whom may have handled those responsibilities poorly or overbearingly.
There's another twist: According to the study, for whatever reason, the programs seemed to have worked most effectively on hard-core abusers/criminals. So to gain the most benefit per dollar and make the most of a bad situation, the remaining courts clearly need to focus on such cases.
There's nothing wrong - and everything right - with rooting out government waste. But sometimes, if that is done carelessly and in haste, it can have the opposite effect. This appears to be one of those times.
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