A court of redemption

Dec. 26, 2013 @ 06:04 PM

In the past two budget cycles, the state legislature has seen fit to provide no money for drug courts – despite their demonstrated effectiveness and the long-term savings they deliver to the criminal justice system.

Fortunately, in Durham local officials have cobbled together funds and redeployed resources to keep the courts functioning.

A story by The Herald-Sun’s Keith Upchurch, who dropped in for a year-end look at how the court here was doing, amply demonstrates why that decision – unlike the state’s – was a sound one.

Drug court seeks redemption, a word Durham District Court Judge Nancy Gordon is fond of invoking. The emphasis is on probation and, most important, treatment rather than punishment and incarceration.

The drug court regimen costs about $6,000 an offender annually. By contrast, it costs five times that amount to keep an inmate in the state’s prison system for a year.

That would seem to be an ironclad argument for the fiscally conservative legislature to keep the programs going across the state. 

The cost savings aside, the savings in human capital are significant.

“What is remarkable about drug court is watching people go from where they were to where they can be,” said Gordon, who oversees the court.  “It’s participating in personal redemption.”

That’s the view from the bench. 

The view from the defendant’s table is just as enthusiastic, if not more so.

“By being in drug court, I’ve avoided death,” said Bobby Meeks, 35, a drug court graduate. He said he had been using drugs since he was young, ended up in jail repeatedly and was homeless when he was out. “It progressed to the point where life was unmanageable,” he said.

But drug court gave him structure and a foundation to turn his life around, and he’s been drug-free for 18 months.  “I’m very grateful for it,” he told Upchurch.

The program is hardly a free pass for drug defendants.  They must have a job, be looking for one, or be in school.  They get drug treatment, job counseling, vocational rehabilitation help – and must submit to frequent urine testing to ensure they are staying clean.

If they violate the terms of their probation, they wind up in jail.

Gordon is blunt about the futility of treating most of these defendants any other way.

“If you’re not well and you don’t have a job or get treatment when you go to jail and you’re in the same condition when you get out – that’s the revolving door,” she said.

This past March, Gov. Pat McCrory included money for drug courts – cut by the legislature two years earlier – in his proposed budget, but it failed to run the legislative gauntlet.

We hope he renews his laudable effort to re-fund the courts in the next budget cycle, and that this time the legislature opts to save money and lives by acquiescing.