Drug Money

Dallas County's innovative DIVERT court program is caught in a budget squeeze

A popular Dallas County court program that successfully treats first-time drug offenders instead of shipping them off to prison is almost out of money and could be dramatically scaled back later this year unless state legislators find big bucks, those who are involved in the program say.

District Judge John Creuzot, an original advocate of the 5-year-old Dallas County drug treatment program, says program administrators tried all sorts of different avenues to secure additional federal funding but were unsuccessful. Creuzot now is among those local officials who say they are worried about whether exhausted federal funds will be replenished through the state Legislature this session.

"We've applied, and applied and applied for different federal monies and been turned down," Creuzot says. "We've done almost all we can, so I'm just hoping for the best."

The DIVERT program (see "Behind the Curve," July 20, 2000) is in jeopardy of being cut back because the original federal money is almost gone. For the first four years, $600,000 in federal funding was only supposed to start the innovative effort, not sustain it. Creuzot, DIVERT project director, says he's now left with just two other major sources of potential funding, the county or the state. The county, like most other government entities right now, is strapped, he says.

"They are cutting back not adding to," he says. "When you consistently are told there is no money and everybody is cutting back, cutting back, cutting back, to be honest with you, we haven't asked for anything. Every time I go there, Commissioner [Jim] Jackson reminds me that we don't have any money."

So, the Legislature, which is currently in session, will likely decide if nine existing or proposed drug courts will get about 15 million additional dollars. If no more money is found, the nine large Texas counties that by law are supposed to have drug courts would only get about $750,000 between them. That could leave Dallas about $200,000 short and could reduce participation to 100 offenders, about half of this year's number, who could be treated through DIVERT, a court administrator says. Creuzot says that for those reasons he's closely watching developments in Austin.

"It's a big concern of mine not knowing where the Legislature is going to come out on all this," Creuzot says. "It's hard for me to say. I mean, I know we've got friends and allies down there, but when it gets down to the real money, what's going to happen, I don't know. So yeah, I'm worried about it."

Drug courts like DIVERT set out conditions for eligibility that take into account such things as criminal history, amount of drug found on an offender by police and an offender's willingness to participate in drug treatment. Before drug courts, judges such as Creuzot often had little choice but to sentence to prison even nonviolent offenders who were caught with a relatively small amount of an illegal drug. Creuzot stands out and is credited with taking personal interest in DIVERT participants, and he says he believes that has helped build self-esteem in those seeking to get off of drugs.

The Dallas program is lauded for more than just keeping first-time drug offenders out of prison. Probably the most impressive thing about the program is that statistics show it is actually doing some good by getting addicts off of drugs and helping them avoid second arrests on drug-related charges, Creuzot says.

A study produced by Southern Methodist University last year and one produced by the Criminal Justice Policy Council this year both show that the DIVERT program keeps significant numbers of drug offenders out of prison. The studies used different methods of calculating success rates, but both said a large percentage of DIVERT graduates stayed out of trouble for a year after treatment. The SMU economics department study said just 16 percent of DIVERT graduates were rearrested compared with 50 percent of those who received no drug addiction treatment.

"Quite frankly, I was floored by the results. I had no idea they would be that good," Creuzot says. "The difference between those who did not get in and those who completed the program was 68 percent reduction in recidivism."

Those same studies have shown that keeping drug offenders out of prison also saves millions in taxpayer dollars, a statistic that helps drug-court advocates argue for funding, Creuzot says.

"It's not only a savings, but it works better than anything else we do," he says. "For every dollar spent, there is $9.34 in savings."

Though local officials say they are worried about what might happen to the program if the state does not come up with money, the Legislature is not ignoring success, particularly when it involves saving money. In fact, state Representative Ray Allen says that while he is well aware of this year's budget constraints, he is far more optimistic about drug-court funding than local officials such as Creuzot are.

Allen says he believes the state will find the additional millions for continued funding of the drug courts like the one in Dallas. A bill that could free up some federal drug money has already passed the House, and a variety of other sources of funding still are potentially viable, he says.

"I'm not unconcerned in a budgetary crisis...but I have received assurances from those that normally you'd have to receive assurances from that this is a priority and that funds can and will be made a priority," he says. "I'm pretty confident that we're going to have funding for drug courts. It's a high priority for the members of both the House and Senate, and it has been a high priority of the governor."

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