Statewide Drug Court Expansion Gets Initial Support From Lawmakers

Dec 9, 2015

Credit Courtesy the NH House of Representatives

 The idea of expanding drug courts in New Hampshire got an initial stamp of approval from the finance division of the state’s heroin and opioid task force on Tuesday and will now head to the full task force for further approval.

Drug courts are an alternative sentencing model that allow people struggling with addiction to avoid jail time and instead enter into a program that connects them with treatment, counseling and help finding a job or education. That support is balanced with accountability measures, like random drug testing and mandatory court appearances.

New Hampshire Superior Court Chief Justice Tina Nadeau, a vocal proponent of the drug court model, said that kind of balance is important.

“In drug court, we actually treat the underlying offense,” Nadeau said. “But we combine it — because we know we’re dealing with this population that also has criminal thinking involved — we combine it with the hammer of the court system and sanctions, and the incentive of getting treatment and cleaning up.”

A handful of New Hampshire counties already have drug court programs, but state Senators Jeb Bradley and David Boutin are pushing a bill that would encourage other counties to start their own by offering matching grants. Their proposal would also set up a statewide office to coordinate drug courts and collect data on how well they’re working.

The proposal will go to the full heroin task force in the weeks ahead. If it gains support there, it will be fast-tracked for further review when the Legislature returns in January.

Supporters of the drug court model point to several potential benefits. This approach is less costly, they say, than incarcerating people who return to court over and over again on drug-related offenses. And they say it can help people get their lives back on the right track, which can have benefits for family members and the community at large. 

About 171 people are currently enrolled in drug court programs around New Hampshire, according to Nadeau. Most are struggling with opiate addiction, but some others are dealing with alcoholism or dependence on other drugs.

It can take one year or longer for someone to complete a drug court program, Nadeau said, and and it’s not uncommon for people to fail out along the way — but, the justice said, that’s not necessarily a sign that the model isn’t working.

“If we had 100 percent graduation rate, then we are targeting the wrong offender and we are wasting our money,” Nadeau said, emphasizing that the program should be geared toward people who are “high-risk” and “high-need.”

Some lawmakers, during Tuesday’s discussion on the drug court expansion, raised questions about whether it was an efficient use of state funds, particularly because it targets only a segment of the population and there’s still the potential that participants will re-offend or relapse. Such questions have been raised before during discussions about drug court programs at the county level.

Other logistical issues, such as whether the state would need to add judges to staff more of these courts, were also brought up.

Nadeau said she’s had ongoing discussions with a colleague on the issue of judicial staffing, and she’s come to the conclusion that counties could probably get by without having to add more judges — the commitment would only require about three hours per week for a team meeting, the actual drug court meeting and other preparation. Nadeau acknowledged, however, that this might be more challenging in counties without their own full-time judges.

Overall, though, Nadeau and others argued that while program only treats a small segment of the population and it’s not 100 percent successful, it’s hard to put a price tag on this investment. She’s been asked before why it should be the rest of the community’s “burden” to take care of the people who are constantly in court because of their addictions.

“What you can’t factor in is the cost to all of the victims. If someone graduates from drug court, you’re preventing five, six, maybe seven other victims from showing up. They’re not showing up in emergency rooms on drug overdoses regularly. There are those other societal costs that, I know, don’t come right out of a budget."