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January 14. 2013 9:19PM

State's chief justice pushes for institution of drug courts

CONCORD - The top judge of the state Superior Court system stepped up her campaign to create more drug courts in the state by enlisting the aid of state lawmakers to sell the program in their home counties.

Chief Justice Tina Nadeau and state Rep. Laurie Harding, D-Lebanon, presided at a presentation for lawmakers and county commissioners about what they say is the effectiveness of drug courts.

"We know that they'll reduce the costs in corrections and we also know there's decreased recidivism," said Harding. "It's the best possible outcome for an individual with an addiction."

Drug courts are sessions of local courts in which some people who committed drug-related offenses receive intensive supervision under a system of rewards and penalties intended to get offenders to take responsibility for their crimes and their sobriety.

"Everyone had given up on me, I used rehabilitation to get shorter sentences," drug court graduate Chris Newcomb told the gathering. "I was a complete and utter nuisance to the criminal justice system."

Doug Marlowe, director of science and policy for the National Association of Drug Court Professionals, told lawmakers that drug courts are not for every defendant involved with drugs, but work better than simple diversion to a drug rehab program.

"If I send 100 people to substance abuse treatment to avoid a criminal prosecution, 50 of those hundred will never walk through the door," Marlowe said. "Of the 50 that do, two-thirds will drop out of treatment within 90 days, which is the minimum point to receive any effective treatment at all."

Marlowe argues that a drug court, for some suspects, is a better answer, because it is "probation on steroids," supervised by a judge who makes sure the program offers "supervision with big teeth."

But Marlowe told the lawmakers that making a drug court work requires more than just herding anyone with a criminal case involved drugs into the program.

Instead, Marlowe said, the program must be structured so that the group of addicts it is most likely to help are sent into the program.

No state funds are available, or even proposed, for creation of drug courts. The drug court advocates acknowledged their goal is to convince counties to adopt the program. To pitch it, they spoke of both the successes that drug courts have in keeping drug-addled offenders from being re-arrested, and claimed that it saves money in the long run.

"Instead of spending 24,000 to 30,000 (dollars) on someone in the jail, they're spending maybe six, seven or 8,000 dollars on someone in the community," Nadeau said. "Our goal really is public safety and spending taxpayer dollars wisely."

But claims the drug court programs save money found a skeptical audience in state Rep. Neal Kurk, R-Weare, a longtime finance committee member and chairman.

Kurk challenged Marlowe's claim that every dollar spent on a drug court leads to approximately $2 to $2.25 return on the investment.

Kurk remarked that he frequently hears that sort of claim from people pushing new programs.

"I keep hearing how if we spend $1 on some program we'll save $7," said Kurk. "I can always see the $1 cost, but I never see the $7 we are supposed to save."

Admitting that some drug courts work and some don't, Marlowe warned that county policy-makers need to make sure they use scientific assessment testing to target the drug courts appropriately.

"There are good drug courts and there are lousy drug courts," he said.

Nadeau said she hoped the sessions would help convince lawmakers and county commissioners to give serious consideration to a formalized drug court in the county criminal justice system.

"Those of us in leadership positions can be in a place where we have the bully pulpit, we can talk about what we believe in, we can bring more people to the table who are in charge of policy," Nadeau said. "It's not free, it costs money, and the only way we can convince community leaders that it is the right idea is to show the savings and show the reduction in the crime rate."

wsmith@unionleader.com


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