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18. Recent history of NC drug courts: funding challenges

In the 1990s The N.C. General Assembly created a statutory platform on which the courts would operate. The legislation provided funding for the Administrative Office of the Courts (AOC) which assisted local drug courts with training, monitoring and review of local court effectiveness and operations, a computer system to receive data from local courts and funding local drug court administration. The legislation funded local administrators. Local organizational setup was mandated by statute, which required a supervisory board containing a local judge, sheriff, District Attorney, clerk, probation and mental health providers. The platform essentially mandated that the local court must have the approval of the local judicial authorities to form a drug court and local law enforcement authorities. Using AOC platforms and funding, local court districts were able to set up local drug courts. Some counties set up multiple treatment courts so that criminal justice focused drug court might co-exist with DWI court, mental health court, veterans court or family treatment courts in the same county.

Since it was up to each judicial district to determine whether to set up a drug court, many opted not to do so. The larger cities had drug courts, but most rural districts did not. A multi-county rural district had an extra challenge of transportation between small towns where there was perceived to be insufficient population to justify a fully operational court in each town. Drug courts are novel and present a judicial district with new challenges or unfamiliar paradigms. So that many districts might be reluctant to accept a drug court. I am grateful, as the drug court judge and the Chief District Court Judge of a small district, that in the mid-90s my predecessor, Judge Pattie S. Harrison, took the initiative to set up a drug court in Judicial District 9A. In 9A, the Caswell County drug court population is rarely over four, so the sessions with the Caswell drug court population are dependent on when the drug court judge is holding criminal court in Caswell. I am not always in Caswell for criminal court, but individual participants in Caswell get more individual attention than the Person County participants.

In 2011, the Legislature was cutting allocations throughout the budget. The AOC was told the amount of the cut, and AOC was allowed to recommend where the cuts would come. The AOC decided to recommend the cuts come from drug courts rather than elsewhere in AOC's budget, and the Legislature accepted the recommendation. The legislature cut funding but did not eliminate the statutory foundation for drug courts. Drug courts could operate, but they had to find the money somewhere other than State government. Drug courts do not save money for the courts, though they do save money for other agencies. Had the AOC preserved funding for the drug courts, they would have had to suffer loss elsewhere like custody mediation, loss of equitable distribution property mediation, loss of trial court administrators, or loss of additional personnel in clerk's offices, in district attorneys' offices, and in the AOC services in order to pay for drug courts.

I AGREE WITH THE CHOICE AOC MADE to save system-wide programming rather than to maintain full funding of drug courts in 23 counties. The choice presented to AOC was balancing programs which increased the functionality and efficiency throughout the courts against dramatically reducing drug court funding. Love drug courts though I do, I must concede the truth is that drug courts do precious little to increase efficiency of the courts. The vast majority of efficiencies initiated by drug courts are experienced outside the court system. Drug courts were reducing cost to Medicaid, schools, foster care, and corrections without significantly increasing efficiency of the courts.

I am confident that the argument was made in 2011 that "drug courts save money," but in 2011, nobody in the new majority was buying that argument at a time of such financial emergency. There was also a fairness argument that if other divisions of state government were sustaining cuts, the courts should do the same. The AOC could well lose funding for drug courts without decreasing its functionality and without losing essential services. The defunding of drug courts would have had a bearing on that one program, but no impact across the AOC and no impact across the courts.

In 2016, North Carolina legislators can have confidence they are making streets safer and freeing money for school in so doing. Rock-ribbed conservatives elsewhere assure their people that they are doing so. If the research did not justify the expenditures, the staffers for these conservatives would step in and say "No."

North Carolina will continue to get less for more, however, as long as legislators fail to realize the benefits generated by drug courts are not experienced in the courts. Funding should be considered by looking at the benefits across government. The Virginia Cost Benefit analysis puts the benefit at $19,234 per person. Other researchers state benefits as a factor of 17 times expenditure when all benefits--hospital, Medicaid, school, institutionalization, foster care costs, DSS attorney fee costs--are taken into consideration. But as long as budgeting is conceived in terms of how much can we cut at AOC, these savings will not be fully recognized.

Why, today, should the legislature fund drug courts when the 21 counties that wish to do are continuing to operate without state funding? FIRST, it is a heavy lift for a judicial district to start a drug court and take on the responsibility of funding it. A drug court is a time-consuming operation. Time in drug court administration doubles the time in court. Most judges and DAs are close to maximum utilization as it is. SECOND, drug courts should be encouraged not discouraged. When it becomes clear that operating a drug court will not be helped from Raleigh, there will be few volunteers to start new drug court or even to maintain one that is operational. THIRD, drug courts need to be in place in order that the entire state will become a cost savings engine for prisons and jails, for reducing Medicaid costs, and for preventing addicted babies from being born to addicted mothers.

During the 2011 debate, an argument was made that funding for drug court should not be continued because it benefited only a few counties. This misunderstands the operation of the benefits. The drug court programming occurs in the counties where the addicts live, but the savings go to the benefit of the entire state. When (in a single year) three pregnant addicts in Judicial District 9A deliver healthy babies, the savings goes to statewide Medicaid. Reduction of prison population by 21 drug courts does not inure to the benefit of the 21 counties where the drug court operated, but to the statewide corrections budget. Person and Caswell counties received no financial benefit in any meaningful way. When Person and Caswell counties move a habitual drunk driver to a life of sobriety, drivers and passengers on the highways are made safer from Murphy to Manteo.