Drug courts and the supervised drug treatment they offer help addicts turn their lives around. Success is not guaranteed, but it occurs with enough regularity that these programs are better than locking addicts up. That should have been the guiding philosophy behind an extended drug court pilot program launched this year. But because the Legislature attached too many strings, the program is far short of its goals. Judges need more discretion — an easy fix that can be accomplished when lawmakers meet next.
A $19 million federal grant allowed the Legislature to establish new, extended drug courts in eight Florida counties, including Pinellas and Hillsborough. The hope was that 4,000 offenders would be diverted from prison and into treatment programs over two years, saving the state $95 million in corrections costs. But according to a new report by the Office of Program Policy Analysis and Government Accountability, the program won't come close to that savings. After six months there were only a total of 324 admissions. In Pinellas there were 48; in Hillsborough, 77.
The problem is that the Legislature tightly restricted who could qualify for the offer of 12 to 18 months of drug treatment as an alternative to state prison. For example, only those probation violators who have failed a drug test can be placed in treatment. If they have any other violations they are barred from participating.
In the real world, this restriction is unworkable. Statewide, 74 percent of all offenders who violate probation by failing a drug test have another technical violation. Often these are also indicators of a relapse in drug use, such as failing to pay court-ordered fees or failing to report to a probation office.
Judges would also like to offer treatment to some offenders who have a violent felony in their past. If a crime was committed long ago it probably shouldn't be a bar to entering the program. And a legislative limit that opened treatment only to offenders with a sentencing score of 52 points or fewer — points assigned for current and past crimes — should be raised.
Florida has to use this federal grant by next October or the money will be forfeited. At this pace, exhausting the grant money is not going to happen, and neither will the anticipated cost savings to the prison system. At its earliest opportunity, the Legislature needs to loosen the restrictions on participation. Trial judges, not legislators, meet the offender and hear recommendations by prosecutors and others on an appropriate sentence. They are in the best position to make the call between treatment or prison.