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Drug court loss

Pinellas County's drug court lost a badly needed $400,000 state grant that would have provided treatment for nonviolent offenders who suffer from mental illness and addiction. Who is to blame? Public Defender Bob Dillinger says local court officials are at fault because they failed to claim the money fast enough. But that deflects criticism from the real culprit: the Florida Legislature.

Drug court began operations in January with a progressive approach for addicts charged with minor crimes. The state attorney identifies those defendants who pose little risk to the public and whose main problem is an addiction to drugs or alcohol. Diverted to Circuit Judge Lauren Laughlin's courtroom, those defendants are sentenced to drug treatment rather than to prison.

The program appears to be a success. Laughlin has more than 700 defendants under supervision, and only 10 percent of those passing through her court have been arrested again. The program works for defendants by giving them a chance to straighten out their lives without the stigma of a prison sentence. It works for the community by providing a low-cost alternative to prison, returning defendants to a productive life and keeping families together.

But drug court needs a variety of community resources, including residential facilities for the toughest cases and sophisticated treatment programs for every defendant. With skimpy state funding, there are waiting lists for some programs, which means some defendants either sit in jail or have to wait for help. In particular, defendants with a "dual diagnosis" of mental illness and addiction have few programs available.

Earlier this year, state Rep. Larry Crow, R-Dunedin, convinced his fellow legislators to appropriate $400,000 to the drug court. The money was supposed to be available after July 1, and Dillinger grew impatient when court officials didn't quickly earmark the money for specific programs. So he formed a committee that proposed using most of the money to increase services for dual-diagnosis patients. Everyone agreed with that priority, but by the time the local court sought the money in September, it wasn't available.

Dillinger says local court officials should have shown more urgency, but that isn't fair to Laughlin and Courts Administrator Bill Lockhart, who must follow a detailed, bureaucratic process (including formal approval by the Pinellas County Commission) to obtain the money. While that process might have been speeded up by a week or so, it probably wouldn't have mattered. Court officials weren't even aware that the money was threatened until it was too late.

Here is how the money was lost: Facing a revenue shortfall, the Legislature told the state Supreme Court to identify cuts that could be made in judicial budgets throughout Florida. The job fell to the newly created Trial Court Budget Commission _ 14 judges and seven court administrators from around the state _ and they froze grants to drug courts and other local programs. Because judicial positions and pay are set by state law, the court system has little wiggle room in its budgets.

In a special session last month, the Legislature made harmful cuts to court budgets (including Pinellas' $400,000). A drug-court supporter, Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Palm Harbor, was able to get $200,000 reinstated. Because the governor hasn't accepted the budget cuts, all of that could change in the next special session later this month. In preparation, the court budget commission once again put a freeze on the drug court money, and it is presumably lost.

Dillinger admits his criticism of local officials was fueled by frustration. "We have a drug court that works," he said. "It's keeping people out of the criminal justice system, and it's cheaper. But I keep losing resources to provide that service. It's extremely frustrating."

Local officials who support the drug court aren't the problem. That distinction belongs to the Legislature's Republican leaders, who have taken the coward's way out _ making budget cuts at the expense of the state's most vulnerable citizens.

Drug court is a success. It is a bargain. All of those who believe in it need to work together to convince the Legislature that an investment in Pinellas County's drug court is both humane and responsible.