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New drug court money isn't helping keep enough people out of prison, state report says

Hoping to steer drug offenders to treatment instead of prison, state legislators set aside $19 million last year to create special drug courts in eight counties.

Hillsborough County got some of the money, as did Pinellas.

With fewer prisoners, legislators hoped to save $95 million.

That's not going to happen, says a state report this month — unless something changes.

The courts themselves are up to standard, the review says. Instead of prison, offenders are sentenced to drug court for 12 to 18 months as a condition of probation. They're getting treatment, and judges are holding them accountable.

The problem: Not enough offenders are admitted because the requirements are too strict.

The Office of Program Policy Analysis and Government Accountability, the Legislature's research arm, gave an example: Programs can't serve probation violators if they're in trouble for anything but a failed drug test.

That doesn't make sense to judges who understand how drug addicts violate probation. They miss meetings, fail to pay fees, don't show up for treatment, get caught with more drugs.

"In my experience as a judge for almost 14 years, I have never seen a violation of probation where a dirty urine was the only violation listed," said Hillsborough Circuit Judge Jack Espinosa Jr.

Reviewers also questioned whether many of the people qualifying for drug court would have otherwise gone to prison.

Judges in Hillsborough and Pinellas say they review each case and admit only those in danger of incarceration.

But they're limited by points the court assigns to the offender's charges, a score to determine a sentence. The cap is 52. Many think it should increase to 60.

Michelle Ardabily, Pinellas' chief deputy court administrator, said drug court has turned away people whose score was too high but still got sentenced to treatment.

"We could've provided greater oversight," she said. "That's frustrating, because they'd have much more success."

The two-year goal for the program was to divert 4,000 offenders from prison. Hillsborough and Pinellas met just a third of their target in their first six months. The six other counties — Orange, Polk, Volusia, Escambia, Marion and Broward — averaged about the same.

In Hillsborough, which has used drug courts since the early 1990s, the expansion money is being put to good use, said program manager Lashawn Smith.

A client in his 50s was addicted to crack and in and out of prison. In drug court, Smith said, he has completed a treatment and has graduated to transitional living.

Ardabily has seen success, too.

"The court model itself works," she said. "It's just been frustrating to hit this narrow window."

New drug court money isn't helping keep enough people out of prison, state report says 10/07/10 [Last modified: Friday, October 8, 2010 11:51am]
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