Budget Woes Imperil Virginia Substance Abuse Funding, Governor Asks Legislature to Undo Drug Court Cuts 4/19/02

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Facing its worst financial crisis in a decade, the Virginia legislature passed a $50.1 billion budget last month, but in so doing, it savaged the state's substance abuse treatment and prevention programs, juvenile justice programs, post-release programs for prisoners and drug court programs. Now, as the legislature prepares to consider the governor's proposed amendments to the budget it passed, Democratic Gov. Mark Warner has asked it to restore $2.1 million for drug court funds.

While the legislature's cuts to the drug court and SABRE (Substance Abuse Reduction Effort) program totaled $18 million, Warner is seeking enough funding only to partially restore the drug courts. The drug courts, which allow defendants to voluntarily submit to a rigorous program of drug testing and supervision in exchange for avoiding a possible prison sentence, had operated in 13 jurisdictions in the state and nine more were slated to open this year.

Drug court advocates had lobbied Warner to restore the funds in the few weeks since the session ended. Roanoke Circuit Court Judge Diane Strickland, who helped start the state's first drug court, joined with Richmond Circuit Court Judge Margaret Spencer and Fredericksburg Commonwealth Attorney Charles Sharp on April 1 to persuade the governor to restore the funding. He didn't need much persuading, they told the Roanoke Times.

After the meeting, Warner moved to restore the funds. "I think they built a very good case that these dollars were well spent," he told the Times. "Keeping those folks in an alternative to full incarceration made common sense and good fiscal sense," the governor said.

According to drug court advocates, keeping a defendant in the drug court program costs $4,000 per year. The cost of jailing the state's 30,000 prisoners comes to more than $22,000 per prisoner per year. According to a recent study of the state's drug courts by researchers at Virginia Tech, the number of participants who have successfully completed the program is running at 68%, up from 60% in 1999. Only seven percent of the graduates have received new convictions, the study found.

Drug courts in Virginia typically receive federal funding, but only if matched by state or local funds. Without the restoration of state funding, the drug courts would collapse, advocates said.

Virginia is not alone in having its drug courts face a financial squeeze, said Susan Weinstein of the National Association of Drug Court Professionals. "But none has been so drastic as Virginia, to wipe out an entire program," she told the Times.

Roanoke stopped its drug court program in March, when it became apparent that state funding would not be forthcoming. According to Judge Strickland, the drug court squeeze is leading to unprecedented legal dilemmas. "My first priority is not to turn these people out of the program," she told the Times. "There's a real legal issue to address here that has never been addressed before: What do you do when the commonwealth and the defense have entered into an agreement, and it can't be carried out?" she asked. "This is new territory to be charted, and I'm trying to prevent charting that territory."

But while Warner's move could result in the restoration of funds for the drug courts, it leaves untouched the cuts directed at treatment and prevention programs, including treatment within prisons. According to V. Morgan Moss, co-director of the Center for Therapeutic Justice in Williamsburg, the new status quo is "the most catastrophic cut in offender substance abuse treatment ever in Virginia."

"It's a disaster," said Jean Auldridge, director of Citizens United for the Rehabilitation of Errants (CURE). "I shudder to think what's going to happen," she told the Hampton Roads Daily Press. "We want to be smart on crime, and being smart is helping people who need help.

"This will affect tens of thousands of offenders with substance abuse problems at all different levels," Auldridge said. "Without this important assistance, we will surely see a rise in the number of men and women who are imprisoned for crimes ranging from simple possession, crimes to support drug habits and crimes that are enabled by substance abuse."

Virginia newspapers have been calling for restoration of the drug treatment funds, but neither the governor nor the legislature appears to be listening. The Hampton Roads Virginian-Pilot called that posture "penny-wise and pound-foolish."

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Issue #233, 4/19/02 Federal Meth Bill Provision Would Send Promoters to Prison for Drug Use at Events | Budget Woes Imperil Virginia Substance Abuse Funding, Governor Asks Legislature to Undo Drug Court Cuts | DRCNet Interview: Jeremy Bigwood on Colombia's Borders | Drug War! Race & Party, NYC Saturday Night | Save New York State Prison Art! | Northeast Summit for New Drug Policies | Alerts: HEA, Bolivia, DEA Hemp Ban, SuperBowl Ad, Ecstasy Legislation, Mandatory Minimums, Medical Marijuana | The Reformer's Calendar

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