It’s important to note, firstly, that the cost of incarcerating someone in state prison is about $32k and in county jails about $35k. Experts say that ideally, drug courts operate on a budget that has a per capita cost of about $8-12k. Any less than that and participants may not be getting enough supervision or critical aid in education, transportation, medication etc. Any more than that and it’s probably time to bring more participants into the program. The challenge many drug courts face is funding. Several of them have started “Friends of Drug Court” 501c3 non-profits which raise funds, and ideally they will have garnered support from county budgets. But the political landscape varies in each county.
When Strafford County started their pilot drug court program in 2004, there was little doubt whether it would get any county support because one of the chief personalities that pushed for its creation, George Maglaras, was himself a county commissioner. Two years later they were awarded a Bureau of Justice Assistance (BJA) implementation grant which lasted for three years. Today, nearly half of its $400,000 budget is provided by the county.
Grafton County was the next to start a drug court in 2007. It now receives full county support with a budget of about $319,000. Add to that a pending BJA enhancement grant of $183,000 for three years and it’s a grand total of $380,000. And with only 25 participants, it also has a per capita cost of $13,000 which is the highest in the state. But it’s still fairly close to that golden range of $8-12k. Grafton also opted to use its county jail probation officers (instead of state-paid ones) for more intensive supervision but that cost is too difficult to calculate accurately. Even if you add the full per capita cost, however, it still comes out lower than the per capita cost of incarceration.
Rockingham’s drug court started in 2010. It had a three year BJA grant for $350,000 that will be running out right about now. The local treatment center applied for a new grant to keep two grant-funded positions working from May to September. Going forward, the county has agreed to start funding the court from September to December at the new annual budget of $375,000. As a result of the new budget, (an increase of about 69%) it will be increasing the number of participants from about 25 to about 45.
The drug court in Belknap was launched around the end of 2012. It received no BJA grant and no county support. In fact, it’s impossible to even apply for a BJA grant without having secured a quarter of your funding from the grantee (partially by cash, the rest by in-kind). Given the political climate in Belknap, getting county support has been a non-starter so far. It was able to start with the support of the county jail, the county attorney, the chief probation officer and local treatment centers. After a year of operating it had about a dozen participants but it could afford to serve up to 25. Their operating budget is hard to calculate since there is no county line item. Treatment subsidized by Access to Recovery funds from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) adds up to about $120,000 last year but that doesn’t include in-kind services provided by court and jail staff.
In stark contrast to Belknap, Cheshire County’s drug court debut last summer boasted lots of money. And they were later awarded not one, but two implementation grants. Their BJA (awarded in August) and SAMHSA (awarded in October) grants add up to about $1.3 million for three years. They received a lot of local support from treatment centers and the county is pitching in $20,000 in testing supplies and another $15,000 in-kind. That’s a total annual budget of about $477,000. Cheshire and Strafford are lucky compared to other counties because they have a dedicated grant writer on staff. But even Cheshire's grant manager was surprised to learn both grants had been awarded. It currently has 10 participants because it’s so young but it can serve a total of 43. With so much grant money, Cheshire is able to do more than just provide treatment. The grants will also help with life skills training, transportation vouchers, medication assistance and expanded counseling options.
That brings us to Hillsborough. The Administrative Office of the Courts has applied for $700,000 in grants for a three year period to start a drug court in this county. It wants to serve about 40 people in Manchester and 40 people in Nashua with a bare-bones treatment grant from BJA that would establish a budget of $116,666 annually for three years at each site. It’s an ambitious plan. The county jail is pitching in to do testing, but there is, as yet, no county dollars to make the program more effective. Most agree that it takes about $8,000 per participant to run a drug court effectively, but with a total budget around $233,000 and the largest group of participants (80), it would have the lowest per capita investment of $3,000. To put it in perspective, Rockingham’s budget was operating with half of what Hillsborough is asking for and served only a third the number of people Hillsborough plans on serving. All of this is still not taking into account the in-kind time investments by the court and jail staff.
Now, it’s easy to say that a simple comparison of per capita costs between incarceration and drug courts reflects immediate cost savings but it’s not quite so immediate. The $35,000 cost per inmate in county jails includes corrections officers and facility costs as well. Those aren’t likely to change if a handful of people are kept out of jail.
The best argument to be made for cost savings is a counter-factual and therefore impossible to prove. It argues that the state or county will save money from all those times drug court graduates don’t go back to jail. You see the dilemma.
But some immediate savings can still be found. Medical costs along with food, clothing and laundry can be calculated to be around $3-5k per county jail inmate. Most drug court participants have suspended sentences of around three years on average. And it takes about a year to 18 months to graduate drug court usually. So successful cases may save the county $1-7k just on those expenses assuming the drug court is only spending $8k on their programming.