Rockingham County Wrestles With Drug Court Funding

Feb 1, 2015

Rockingham County Courthouse
Credit By John Phelan (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Drug courts are supposed to save taxpayers money: one year of intense treatment and supervision costs about a third as much as a year behind bars.

But it still requires money, up front.

Now, after squeezing four years out of a federal startup grant, Rockingham County is wrestling over how to fund the program.

In December, Rockingham county’s drug court team, which includes a judge, prosecutor, and treatment provider, asked the county for $370,000.  That’s triple their last year of funding from the feds.  Coordinator Joan Bishop says they hoped to double their capacity and add case workers to the staff. 

“A case manager position would sit down with a participant and say ‘what are your job needs? What are your housing needs,” says Bishop. “Those are the life skill things that people really really need.”

The Commissioners countered with $150,000 – just enough to keep the program running.  That’s less than half as much funding as Grafton County’s drug court, and less than a third of Strafford County’s drug court.

Rockingham earns significantly more tax revenue than either of those counties.

Rockingham County Commissioner Kevin Coyle says he’s frustrated the state doesn’t fund the drug courts. “I think putting it on the counties is an unfair burden to county taxpayers.”

In New Hampshire, state funding isn’t likely. Coyle says he’s heard a lot from drug court advocates about Strafford County, where budget writers have taken a different path.

Over 10 years, Strafford County has graduated 121 people who would otherwise have done time behind bars. Factoring in the cost of keeping someone locked up – that’s saved taxpayers two and a half million dollars.

The program’s loudest advocate is County attorney, Tom Velardi.  “It absolutely works,” he says. “You cannot make an argument that drug court should not be part of your response to criminality.”

Commissioner Coyle, however, is not convinced. Strafford County may be successful, he says, but so far Rockingham County Drug court’s track record doesn’t look good.

After 350,000 federal dollars spent over almost four years, only 7 people have graduated. One of those people has re-offended.

Coordinator Joan Bishop says judgment is premature.  The drug court only fits 20 people at a time, and “this program takes an average of 18 to 24 months to complete,” says Bishop, “so it takes a while for you to show outcomes.”

On top of that, national best practices show that drug courts save the most tax dollars when they target criminals with the most severe addictions. Half of whom, experts say, will fail out of the program.

That can make even a thriving drug court a tough sell – let alone one still getting its feet on the ground. 

County delegates vote on the final budget March 3.