Dozens of Manchester officials and advocates testified in front of leaders of the Hillsborough County Legislation Delegation Monday morning, urging lawmakers to fund a drug court in the state's largest city.
Susan Paris of Manchester is the mother of a 21-year-old heroin addict. Her son has been in trouble with the law three times for stealing for his drug habit. And each conviction included jail time but no drug treatment.
“Not having a drug court in Hillsborough County is unacceptable. This problem is not going away and jail is not the answer,” she told the crowd Monday morning.
The story is much the same for Tracy Bachert of Manchester. Her son is 25 years old and has been battling an opioid addiction for six years. He’s been arrested several times.
“Putting them in jail doesn’t help because when they come out, they have the exact same problems from when they went in. They need counseling; they need therapy to find out why they were using to begin with, which they are not getting in jail. And they need help getting a job and with the felonies on their record, they can’t get work, they can’t get decent work,” she said after the hearing.
Several New Hampshire counties already run drug courts, including Cheshire, Grafton, Rockingham and Strafford. And New Hampshire Superior Court Chief Justice Tina Nadeau says they’re having an impact.
She points out that, according to national studies, those who enter a drug court are 43 percent less likely to re-offend than someone who was initially locked up.
“Drug courts reduce crime, they save money and they save lives, so if you invest in a drug court, you are investing in the future of reducing victims of crime and reducing heroin overdose deaths,” she testified.
The courts all run differently, but they allow non-violent offenders opportunities for counseling and treatment while serving a sentence outside a jail cell. Hillsborough County runs one in Nashua, but now the push is to open one in Manchester as well.
At Monday’s meeting, incoming Manchester Police Chief Nick Willard says addiction crimes as well as drug-related deaths are increasing in the city. Since January, Manchester has seen close to 300 overdoses, 40 of which were fatal. That's an increase of 97 percent over last year and 313 percent above the 2013 rate.
“When you figure we respond to nearly 290 overdose calls, that is 297 moments when our officers are responding to something unrelated to other things, protecting your neighborhood, being in your neighborhood, preventing a burglary,” Willard said, adding that the department cannot arrest its way out of this problem.
Mayor Ted Gatsas says these numbers are evidence that the current system is not working. “I understand about budgets, and I understand about financing and I understand about taxes, but I also understand about life and death, and when you hear that the population of those dying are growing, that is something we need to do something about,” said Gatsas, who supports a drug court in his city.
But the sticking point is: who will pay for it? Implementing a drug court in Manchester is estimated to cost the county $450,000 a year. The county delegation's executive committee rejected including money for the court in its budget earlier this month, saying a drug court might cause county taxes to go up.
So far Hillsborough County is looking at an 8 percent tax increase if the proposal is approved Tuesday. Those backing the drug court urge delegates not to increase taxes, but rather to tap into the county’s $5 million surplus instead.
But County Commissioner Sandra Ziehm says depleting the surplus would hurt the county’s bond rating. “By maintaining that surplus we ensure the best possible credit rating a city can get. As the county deletes this surplus, we will need to consider decisions such as this to minimally contain our costs of borrowing money as much as possible,” she testified.
Other commissioners questioned how the county would pay for this cost further down the road.
But in Strafford County, where the state built its first drug court in 2005, Commissioner George Maglaras says drug courts are worth the investment.
“The bottom line here is when it comes down to the money, which is what everyone is always concerned about. The cost of incarceration in our county runs about $85 a day; the cost of our alternatives to incarceration costs about $10 a day,” Maglaras said.
Deputy Attorney Patricia LaFrance of Rockingham County says, as an experienced felony prosecutor, she knows that locking drug addicts up is not the answer. But LaFrance, who is a resident of Hillsborough County, says this issue is personal.
“I have family and friends in this county. I do not want them to come home from work and find their home trashed by an addict looking for items to sell for drugs, I do not want them to be assaulted and robbed when they go to the ATM and most of all I do not want them to ever walk into their child’s bedroom and find them dead with a needle nearby,” she said passionately.
The 123-member Hillsborough County delegation is scheduled to take a final vote Tuesday evening.