Like many of its participants, the one-year-old drug court in Harris County, Tex., is struggling, says the Houston Chronicle. State legislators created it last year but did not provide a funding source. While the county handles nearly 6,000 low-level drug cases a year, the drug court has taken fewer than 100. A money crunch forced the program to stop taking new cases from February until June. “The start-up has been a catch-as-catch-can process,” said director Mary Covington, who hopes for a $500,000 federal grant to cover much of the drug court’s costs for the next three years.
Drug court supporters say taxpayers spend about $44 per day to house a prison inmate, while residential drug treatment costs about $32 per day. With no new money, the program faces a Catch-22 that requires proved success to get money – but needs money to show success. It is too early to know whether Harris County’s drug court is effective in reducing arrests or to compare its results with those of the roughly 1,200 other drug courts across the country. During the first year, about 10 percent of the drug users whom prosecutors referred to the court have dropped out and ended up in jail or prison. Some critics call “hug court,” mocking the encouragement a judge gives recovering addicts in their courtroom. A key to the program’s survival has been support from District Attorney Chuck Rosenthal. Initially reluctant to yield control over some of the 9,000 drug offenders – one third of all cases – who come through the system each year, prosecutors have been willing to offer nonviolent addicts opportunities for treatment. That support may signal an important change in public opinion, said state Rep. Harold Dutton, who pressed last year for Harris County to step up drug treatment to reduce jail populations.