Defunding the solution
06.04.11 - 10:19 am
It costs, at minimum, $23,575 to house an inmate in one of North Carolina's minimum-security prisons for one year. If that offender is diverted to drug treatment court, the combined costs of close probation supervision, court visits and regular drug testing are $1,256 per year.
But the General Assembly's attempt at a state budget eliminates funding for drug treatment courts.
If you didn't hear courthouse staff and county governments howling in outrage and consternation, you weren't listening hard enough.
"They're just looking for ways to put their budget together without raising revenue," said Rep. Paul Luebke. He cited cuts to another program, sentencing services, that saves $7 for every $1 in funding, and noted, "you're cutting short term but ensuring higher costs later."
If this is a naked effort to push costs off the state's balance sheet and onto smaller governments, it might be working. Mecklenburg County's Board of Commissioners has tentatively agreed to spend $623,000 to fund the drug treatment courts that the state plans to abandon.
Because, in addition to the $22,319 saved on each drug offender who goes to treatment instead of to jail, programs like Durham's abuse, neglect and dependency court help parents get healthy enough to care for their kids.
That benefits communities. Last year, 51 parents of 93 children completed one of the 11 family-oriented drug treatment courts in North Carolina and regained custody of their children.
A 1996 study from San Diego State Univeristy found that when parents are able to visit their children in foster homes, they are up to 10 times more likely to be reunified with their kids. That's not something parents can do from prison.
There are clear implications for taxpayers.
The state offers foster care support checks that range from $475 for young children to $634 per teenager. Those payments to foster families don't include the administrative costs for oversight, social workers, or scholarships for children who age out of the foster care system.
And that's just the money. While foster care is preferable to a dangerous home, a 2001 study for the Washington State Institute for Public Policy found that children in foster care "score 15 to 20 percentile points below non-foster youth on achievement tests [and] only 59 percent of foster youth enrolled in 11th grade complete high school by the end of grade 12."
In government, there is always a fear of unintended consequences that result in great damage or great expense.
But in the state's push to eliminate drug courts, the inevitable consequences are infuriating.
No wonder Mecklenburg is considering paying for its own drug courts. It may come to that same question in Durham.
The fact that state government is mismanaging income and sales taxes, forcing counties to fill gaps with property taxes, should not be an excuse to avoid discussing how to save these programs.
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