Report: Drug courts cost less than ‘business as usual’
ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) — Specialized courts that hear the cases of adult defendants with drug abuse and addiction issues are a less expensive alternative to incarceration, legislative analysts reported Thursday.
Their findings were presented to the Legislative Finance Committee, a key panel responsible for helping to set New Mexico’s priorities when it comes to spending each year on government programs and services.
The report comes as lawmakers grapple with rising crime rates and an overburdened court system and constituents in the state’s largest city and elsewhere call for reforms. Officials have pointed to New Mexico having the second-highest rate of property crime in the nation in 2016.
Rather than ‘business as usual’ as the legislative analysts describe it, drug courts combine substance abuse testing and treatment with supervision to reduce recidivism among those charged with drug-related offenses.
Each drug court is required to report the percentage of defendants who are arrested on a new felony charge over a three-year period. An analysis of that data by the legislative committee indicates that participants who complete the program have a re-arrest rate for any type of offense of about 25 percent, compared to 50 percent of non-participants.
The committee’s staff is working on a more comprehensive review of recidivism rates to compare drug court participants with those who serve time behind bars or are placed on probation. They also recommended that the courts collect more data.
State Sen. Richard Martinez, a retired magistrate judge who represents a region plagued by drug abuse and overdose deaths, described the scourge of addiction in his community as horrific.
Martinez said the drug court that serves Espanola and Rio Arriba County has been “a saving grace” for his constituents.
“Some of these people have begged me to try to get them out of drug court,” he said, explaining that’s not an option.
“It takes a while for the alcohol and the drugs to leave their system, but after about a week or so, after two or three sessions, they start to realize they can function without the alcohol and the drugs in their system. They start to realize how important it is,” he said.
Peter Bochert with the state Administrative Office of the Courts said drug courts in New Mexico and elsewhere are at the forefront of criminal justice reform and that court officials in the state will continue efforts to ensure such programs align with standards and best practices.
The report cites the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence, saying 50 percent of the jail and prison population in the U.S. is clinically addicted to drugs or alcohol and that 60 percent of individuals arrested for most types of crime test positive for illegal drugs when arrested.
Bochert said one of the keys is focusing on high-risk, high-need offenders.
“With drug courts, it’s not what you did that leads to acceptance into the program but why you did it,” he said.
While the analysts and court officials acknowledge that more data is needed to better track outcomes, the report pegs the total annual cost per participant in an adult drug court program at $9,400. That’s less than the $11,500 it would cost for standard interventions, such as probation or incarceration.
For juvenile defendants, the report indicates that there are no cost benefits given that drug court programs for younger offenders are typically more resource intensive. Also, re-arrest rates among juvenile drug court graduates in New Mexico averaged 20 percent for the 2016 fiscal year, compared to 14 percent three years earlier.