Penny Wise, Pound Foolish
Budget Cuts Threaten Money-Saving Drug Court
Joshua Wallace spent his days shooting drugs on downtown streets when police arrested him in 2005. Held in King County Jail for possessing a half-gram of methamphetamine, the homeless Wallace faced a maximum term of five years in prison. But three years later, at the age of 34, Wallace is out of jail, lives in his own apartment, and attends community college. He's clean. And he credits his recovery to King County's drug-diversion court.
The program, which started in 1994, allows nonviolent drug offenders to opt for rehabilitation services instead of going to jail. If defendants don't comply, they have to serve their jail sentences. Hundreds of people have graduated from drug court, saving millions of dollars in incarceration costs and the costs associated with recidivism; and it has given people like Wallace a way to stop the cycle of addiction and arrest.
"Following court rules helped me do things like go to NA meetings, get into housing, and get into outpatient rehabilitation with the option of going into inpatient if I needed it," Wallace says. "Those are things I would have never done on my own." He adds: "I think if I took the felony [conviction], I wouldn't have had a reason to quit using."
But despite the program's success, the cost-saving court may be cut. Earlier this month, King County Executive Ron Sims announced a $68 million shortfall in the county's 2009 budget. In addition to proposing a slew of cuts to health and human services, Sims asked criminal justice agencies to slash 8.6 percent of their budgets. A memo circulated by county law-enforcement agencies says that in order to reduce its budget by $3.8 million, King County Superior Court "will have to decrease or eliminate discretionary services." At the top of the list: "adult drug court."
"We have to look at every program that is not legally mandated [by the state]," says superior court chief administrative officer Paul Sherfey, who estimates drug court costs the county about $1.2 million a year. Although Sherfey thinks the county may continue to fund drug court in 2009, he speaks gravely of the prospects for the following years. "In the future, the budget gets worse," he says.
Cutting drug court seems especially shortsighted, because any savings from reducing or eliminating the drug-court budget would eventually turn up as increased taxpayer costs for incarcerating drug offenders. The county estimates that the 66 people who graduated the program in March 2008 saved $1.4 million in state prison costs, and another $150,000 in county jail expenses.
Under the current proposal, the county would stop accepting drug cases involving possession of fewer than three grams—about 1,400 low-level drug offenses per year. Those offenses, according to Leesa Manion, chief of staff for the prosecutor's office, would be diverted to municipal and district courts.
That could create a hairball of legal and fiscal problems: Possessing any amount of hard drugs in Washington is a felony, but municipal and district courts can only charge people with misdemeanors, so those courts would need to charge defendants with misdemeanors, rather than the felonies for which they were arrested. If found guilty, offenders could still be sent to county jail. The city, meanwhile, has made it clear that it has no intention of paying jail costs for those offenders. In other words, the plan could still cost the county thousands of dollars to jail each offender—without the financial benefits of putting the defendants through drug court.
The final budget decisions will be left to the county council, where drug court has at least one staunch supporter, Council Member Larry Gossett. Although Gossett concedes, "It's going to be a challenge to keep drug court or keep cuts at the same level of other services," he vows to fight for it.
Drug court graduate Wallace is skeptical of transferring low-level drug defendants to the city courts. "If they're not going to provide them the same benefits, it's not going to work," he says.