As the state Legislature prepares to spend hundreds of millions of dollars to build new prisons, the coordinator of the Morgan County Drug Court finds it puzzling that it does not direct more money toward a program that has had startling success at keeping people out of prison.
Tammy Jolley said the Morgan County Drug Court — one of 55 in the state — has about 65 current participants, as many as it can handle with current staffing. Its recidivism rate — the percentage of people who re-offend within three years of graduating from the program — is 13.43%, compared to about a 65% recidivism rate nationally for people who are incarcerated for drug-related offenses.
Drug court participants must plead guilty to their drug-related felony, but the case is dismissed and they serve no prison time if they successfully complete the program.
More money, Jolley said, would allow her to hire more staff. That would mean more people in the program and fewer people in prison.
“I think you could have a drug court here in Morgan County with 200 participants and do amazing things not only for your client — and you’re never serving just that one person, it does amazing things for everyone their life touches — but also for your community, for your jail budget. It’s just a much more fiscally and socially responsible way to do business,” she said.
Morgan County Drug Court’s recidivism rate is unusually low, but the drug court model has shown similar success nationwide. According to the National Association of Drug Court Professionals, only 25% of drug court graduates are arrested again. The average annual cost of housing a prisoner is $22,650, according to the NADCP, compared to an average annual cost of $6,985 for a drug court participant. And the released prisoner on a drug-related charge will probably offend again, whereas the graduate of a drug court probably won’t.
The NADCP calculates that every $1 invested in drug courts saves taxpayers $27. Jolley points to data like that as she looks for ways to expand a program that she believes has benefited not only its participants but the county.
"It would be awesome if folks in our community decided they valued our program to the extent that they wanted to throw in a case manager for us so we could accept more folks into the drug court program, so more folks could have access," she said.
More state funding?
Morgan County Circuit Judge Charles Elliott, who presides over the drug court, said the state Legislature has made great strides in recent years at sentencing reform, but by neglecting funding for drug courts it has neglected one of the most effective way to rehabilitate defendants while keeping them out of prison.
Aggressive supervision is especially critical to monitor the unique needs of addicts in drug court, he said. In Morgan County, that means more funding is needed to hire case managers and others who have direct contact with participants.
State Sen. Arthur Orr, R-Decatur, doesn’t disagree, and he believes such funding is feasible.
“For a successful program like this, we ought to be able to find additional resources if that will help expand the program and reduce recidivism, which of course reduces the cost for the Department of Corrections,” he said. “The timing is good because the General Fund is in the best shape it’s been in financially in years.”
Orr said legislators are increasingly receptive to creative approaches to keeping defendants out of prison.
“There’s been an interest in the Legislature in recent years to … see if we can’t safely reduce the prison census across the state.”
Cost 'a barrier to entry'
More funding would not just allow for more case managers and more participants, it would help remove financial barriers that block people from entering drug court, said Leah Nelson, research director at Alabama Appleseed Center for Law and Justice.
“When we’re looking at the context of treatment courts and treatment programs, (cost) is a barrier to entry, which means that people are not necessarily able to access these services,” Nelson said. “And it’s truly wild because this is all happening in the context of a state that has prison overcrowding and violence problems so bad that the Justice Department is suing our entire prison system.”
Jolley acknowledges cost can be a barrier for potential drug court participants and she’s taken several steps to keep those costs down. Most notably, the Morgan County Drug Court requires no upfront admission fee as many in the state do, and rather than require a participant to pay for every drug screen, the participant pays a set amount per month.
“You can come into drug court without a dime in your pocket,” Jolley said, stressing that upfront costs or demands for prompt payment would prevent her from helping those who have the greatest need for the program. “What you’d end up with is a kind of pay-for-justice situation, where there are those who can afford to be in drug court and those that can’t. The very people who need us the most would not have access.”
But still the costs can mount over the course of a participant’s stay in drug court, which averages 18-20 months but sometimes lasts for years.
Participants pay a $35 per month supervision fee plus a $70 per month fee for drug screens, an amount Jolley noted is well below the actual cost of the drug screens. They also have to pay for an initial assessment by a specialist — at least $50 — and costs can escalate if the assessment concludes they need inpatient or residential treatment. One of the largest expenses — not within Jolley's control — is court costs, which frequently exceed $1,000.
While Jolley points out that these combined costs are generally below what a defendant in a felony drug case must pay if they are convicted or plead guilty, she recognizes the problem.
“It’s close to $200 a month they might be paying. That’s nothing to sneeze at if you’re making $8.50 an hour,” she said.
Small paid staff
But money to run the drug court has to come from somewhere. Its only funding comes from participants, Morgan County Community Corrections — which has its own funding problems — and an annual state grant that’s typically about $30,000. Jolley and a part-time peer support specialist who graduated from drug court are the only paid staff, although volunteers — most notably Dr. Charles Elliott, the judge’s father — also pitch in.
"If you have a high caseload because you can't afford to hire any other officers or case managers, their success rate is going to go down," Jolley said. "I know what we have to offer with the funding we have. I'm only going to take the worst of the worst, the ones I feel are in dire straits and have to have our help."
Others who could benefit from the program are unlikely to make the cut. And the population the program targets — precisely because of their desperate circumstances — often struggle to meet the financial obligations of participation.
“We go to great lengths to make it work, to be supportive, to use every resource to help our clients, but at the end of the day nobody else is standing out there offering felony dismissals along with all the resources that you have access to while you’re in drug court,” Jolley said. “So if you want this off your record and you want your life to change, there’s some sacrifice involved.”
Judge Elliott has worked with the District Attorney’s Office to find a partial solution to pending court costs, which prevent an otherwise successful participant from completing drug court and being released from supervision. In such cases, the DA’s Office will sometimes move to dismiss the case without prejudice. That doesn’t release the participant from the financial obligation and technically the DA can refile the case if payments aren’t made, but it does end drug court supervision and the costs that go along with it.
Nelson said an obvious solution to the cost barriers is state funding. Elliott is mystified such funding has not materialized.
“How could we not fund treatment courts if they’ve proved their cost savings? How can we not fund them if they’re proven to work? Drug courts are both the most successful and most researched criminal justice initiatives that we have in this country,” he said.
And while the potential cost savings for taxpayers may be the best argument for legislative funding, the transformation of human lives is what captivates Elliott.
“When people plead into drug court, I say, ‘We’re going to be on the bus with you. We’re going to buy the gas and we’ll have a map and we’ll give you directions, but you’ve got to drive the bus. You are responsible for your success or failure in this program. We’re going to help you out along the way. We’ll pick you up when you fall,’” he said. “But when we see folks and they make complete changes in their lives, it is the highlight of my job, and it’s not even close.”