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December 1, 2013
Drug courts: twice the bang for half the bucks

By Jan Pudlow
Senior Editor

Twice the bang for half the bucks.

That’s what Florida reaps with its 101 drug courts, Seventh Circuit Judge Joseph Will told the House Justice Appropriations Subcommittee on November 5.

Judge Joseph Will “You won’t have as many people recidivating as you do through the normal process, be it supervision, jail, or prison,” he said. “You will spend less than half the money to accomplish that. So you get twice the bang for half the bucks.”

Frustration with a criminal justice system that kept cranking the same people in and out, over and over — probation, failure, jail, another arrest, prison, another arrest — led to the first drug court in Miami in 1989 that became a national model.

“It was that frustration, that inability to make the system click, to make it have meaning, to get a result out of the process . . . that caused people to gather together,” he said.

“The people who gathered together were judges, state attorneys, public defenders, correctional officers, probation officers, and treatment professionals. Our communities have gathered together and put together these little ad hoc partnerships that receive diverse funding from all over the place, trying to hold us together with bailing wire and chewing gum. That’s what we’re doing with our drug courts.”

Steve Leifman, associate administrative judge of the Miami-Dade County Criminal Division, said for every dollar invested in drug courts, there is a 221 percent return.

“People’s first thought is: ‘Well, what are you talking about? You’re going to coerce people into drug treatment? People don’t do well with drug treatment unless they come to it on their own, unless they hit their bottom, unless they’re ready,’” Will said.

“Hogwash! Hogwash! It works three or four times better than voluntary treatment. Coerced treatment has gone off the charts for us, as far as success goes,” Will said.

“Drug court — for those of you who haven’t seen one up close and personal — it is our primary problem-solving court. It’s judge-directed. The judge is always going to make the decision, but we sit down with a team of all of these people: state attorneys, public defenders, correction officers, and treatment professionals. And we make decisions on a weekly basis on the treatment plan for the people who are going to be in our program.

“We take what we call high-risk, high-needs people. We’re not looking for weekend pot smokers. We are looking for people who have serious mental health and substance abuse issues, very often at the same time.

“We identify these people with a screening device. We take them from our regular felony dockets and we put them into this judge-supervised team, with our professionals.

“We unbelievably scrutinize these people daily. We treat them almost constantly with one-on-one counseling sessions, in group sessions. They attend AA and NA meetings. They see the judge frequently in early phases, once a week. In later phases, once every three weeks. They are monitored with urinalysis to make sure they are not cheating, which, by the way, is getting very difficult and very expensive to do because of the creativity of all of the people in the drug business these days.

“They receive rapid and firm sanctions when they violate. Sometimes, their sanction will be a jail sentence. Sometimes, it will be something else.

“They are also given small rewards, because that is all part of the behavioral program that we are running.

“In my court, everybody works. Everybody works at ‘a job with a hat,’ we call it. Because there are so many people in our state who are working off the grid, particularly in the population that we’re talking about now. They haven’t worked in a job on the grid, where they have paid taxes and contributed anything to the rest of us for so long, that we compel that as a part of the drug court treatment as well, so that we can build some independence and some sustainability for the people who are with us.

“We follow evidence-based practices throughout. We get them from current research that goes faster than we can. We utilize national standards. We have something called the ‘10 Key Components’ that keep us on the same wavelength, so that we don’t have aberrant drug courts wandering off and being crazy.”

Another group of high-risk people headed for prison participated in an experiment called the Adult Post-Adjudicatory Drug Court Expansion Program that began as an eight-county pilot with federal dollars and then was funded by the Legislature for the 2013-14 fiscal year.

“The state for the first time said, ‘Let’s try this outside of the counties; let’s try it on a statewide basis, and see if we can save prison time for people who are hell-bent on prison.’ They were going to prison, end of discussion,” said Will, who provided statistics that 77 percent of Florida’s state prisoners identify with a substance-abuse problem, yet 86 percent of them leave prison without treatment.

A report from OPPAGA — the Florida Legislature’s Office of Program Policy Analysis & Government Accountability — is expected in January, he said, that examines the new program. Will said that report is expected to prove “you are getting twice the bang for half the bucks for the people who were going to go to state prison,” too.

“The question at the time was: ‘Can we replicate this on a statewide basis?’ And I think the answer is: Yes, we’re going to. We have eight counties in the program. It’s an experiment. There’s about 2,400 people admitted to the program, and it’s proceeding just as it was scheduled to.”

[Revised: 02-19-2017]