The United States has the highest rate of incarcerations than any other nation in the world, often grouping violent and non-violent criminals together. Diversionary programs such as drug courts, which provide treatment-based alternatives to prisons, remain critically underfunded, according to such advocates as Ana Yáñez-Correa, executive director for the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition.
Drug courts rely on volunteer judges who can only oversee the courts in their free time, depending on their regular dockets and availability. Although substance abusers are required to take weekly drug tests and attend meetings, relapse is common. With the aid of defense attorneys, prosecutors, and probation officers, advocates hope that these specialized drug courts can help break the chain of addiction.
The courts are primarily funded by the criminal justice division at the governor’s office, but considering the current economic burdens on the state, funding of the drug courts came up more than five million dollars short. “Despite [their success], the state of Texas has never designated a pot of money specifically for funding drug courts,” says Yáñez-Correa.
During the last legislative session in 2007, Texas lawmakers appropriated more than two hundred million dollars to mental health treatment, substance abuse programs, and transitional sanction facilities through the Justice Reinvestment Initiative. Since then, not only have outpatient programs proven successful but the prison population has increased only marginally—by only five hundred and twenty-nine individuals, according to the Texas Justice Center.
Texas state representative Roland Gutierrez, a Democrat from San Antonio and an attorney certified to participate in drug courts, is the sponsor of House Bill 666—legislation which would generate funds for the drug courts by widening the range of offenses subject to the fifty-dollar court cost. Currently, probationers for DWI and drug-related offenses pay this fee, generating roughly six hundred and eighty thousand dollars annually. Tacking this fee onto assault offensives, robbery, property crimes, trespassing, theft, fraud, and all weapons cases could generate three and a half to four million dollars.
Last year, 156,127 offenders were registered through the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, and parole rates are historically low. “We have a tremendous uphill battle, says Gutierrez. “The old paradigm of sending people to prison is not working, and what we’re creating is violent criminals.” Statistics from the Bureau of Justice show that in 1997, twenty-two percent of federal inmates, and thirty-three percent of state inmates.
According to Gutierrez, substance abuse treatment is more efficient, and less burdensome on taxpayers, than sending such offenders to prison. “The person who is addicted to drugs does not need to be taking up that bed space.”
Although Yáñez-Correa of the Criminal Justice Coalition says she is not a proponent of increasing fees on offenders, there is a need to look at the bigger picture. “In 2001, the concept of drug courts began because judges got tired of seeing the same people over and over again going through their courts,” she says. “How many millions of dollars are we wasting by locking up addiction? You can’t cure addiction by locking up addiction because there is no treatment in prison that deals with [that] problem.”