By Linda Harris
Whether they realize it or not, using drug courts to help adult and juvenile offenders break their addiction saves West Virginia taxpayers millions of dollars a year, Supreme Court Justice Brent Benjamin says.
“Last year, not incarcerating them saved the state between $20 million and $21 million at a program cost of about $3 million,” he said. “That’s a net savings of $17 million, $17.5 million to the state.”
Under the state’s new Justice Reinvestment Act, by July 2016 every county in West Virginia will either have to have its own drug court or participate in a regional version.
“It’s a valuable option for people who commit crimes because of their addictions,” he said. “It’s not there for people who are big-time pushers or hardened criminals. It’s there for people who commit crimes because of their addiction.
“If the judge and prosecutor agree an offender has the potential to turn his life around, they may get a chance to do that and avoid prison time, or at least some prison time. They may even avoid conviction altogether.”
The officials agree simply sending someone to jail doesn’t fix the underlying problems. Without help, “80 to 85 percent will, within a matter of months, go right back into the drug scene,” Benjamin said.
“Drug courts are designed to break that cycle,” he said. “We’ve been very fortunate in West Virginia. Prosecutors, judges, probation officers, police, lawyers … they’ve all volunteered their time. There’s a whole host of people on the drug court team and they’ve been able to break cycles and achieve what I believe are very good results.”
The first adult drug court in West Virginia was established in 2005 in the Northern Panhandle, serving Brooke, Hancock, Ohio, Marshall, Tyler and Wetzel counties. Four years later Marshall, Tyler and Wetzel organized their own court.
Since then, 15 more drug courts have formed, serving 29 additional counties, all of them diverting non-violent drug and alcohol dependent offenders into treatment rather than jails.
“The system’s not perfect, it’s not designed to be perfect,” Benjamin said. “There are always going to be some folks who wash out, who simply can’t stay sober.
“The key to the program is maintaining sobriety and them taking responsibility for their life.”
Drug testing is not just mandatory, “but it’s frequent and unscheduled.”
“Statistically, we’re still at the beginning phase of pulling together all the data but it’s looking very favorable at this point,” he said. “About 55 or 60 percent of all the juveniles and adults who go through the program graduate.
“The program takes anywhere from 12-14 months, maybe even two years, depending on the individual. Some people just take a little longer. So far our rate of recurrence is somewhere around 14 percent or 14.5 percent overall, and just over 9 percent for adults. Compare that to the 80-85 percent you see with incarceration and it’s quite a difference.”
Benjamin, though, said the real worth of the program is “when you look at how many lives have changed, how many lives it’s affected, the families that have come back together so moms can be moms again and kids can be kids.”
He singled out Mercer County and its eight graduates as an example of the program’s success.
“They all got their GED through the program,” he said. “They all have jobs, they all pay taxes and are responsible to their families. That’s what I mean by breaking the cycle, the negative cycle.
“This program restores families that drugs destroyed.”
West Virginia historically has had a problem with babies being born into drugs. One in four or five babies is born with drug residue in their system.
“At the start of life they don’t have an equal chance,” he said. “But through the Drug Court program, there’ve been 40 or 50 drug-free babies born in the last several years. So when we talk about the worth of the program, we’re not just talking in terms of dollars and cents but in terms of lives and people.”
He points out the pervasive problem of addiction in West Virginia.
“They can affect anybody, any family in the state,” he said. “It’s a problem for the state, and the drug courts are simply one program that can help. As a state, we need to look at a number of things, not just drug courts.
“Drug courts intervene only after the problem has manifested itself, after law enforcement, prosecutors and the courts get involved. Many people don’t know where to turn, their options are limited. It’s a problem that’s not going to go away — we can wrestle with it now and try to find solutions, or we can let it grow. It’s just common sense that we look at the problem now and deal with it now. It’s not easy to do in times of budgetary problems, like we have now, but it has to be considered.”
Unlike many states, West Virginia’s Drug Court program is decentralized — meaning each drug court can develop its own approach to combating addiction. In Jefferson County, for instance, members of the business community have volunteered to mentor juvenile drug offenders.
“It’s worked wonderfully,” he said. “An individual interested in repairing cars was paired with the owner of a car dealership, another who wanted to be a fireman was paired with a fire chief. It was fun for me to sit and watch them discussing it — the kids were engaged, the adults were engaging with them. I couldn’t help but wonder if it was the first time some of them got to hear not just about the opportunities open to them, but to have someone listen to them and their ideas.
“A lot of our judges will call kids on report card day to find out how they did,” he added. “It may be the only time in their life an adult has shown an interest in them. The judges, prosecutors, probation officers — they do it voluntarily. I think that’s what makes it a better program.”
He said not everyone will graduate and some who do will undoubtedly fall back into old habits, “but we can’t not do the program.”
“We had one young woman from Wayne County who delivered a baby during the program,” he said. “That baby was the only one of her five children born drug free. She is drug free, the baby is drug free and a family that had been broken apart by her drug abuse is back together.
“As long as people will help themselves, we’ll try to help them — not to save the state money, but because it’s the right thing to do.”