Picking Up the Bill

This time, a plan to bring drug courts here has real teeth

For several years, state Representative Senfronia Thompson tried to persuade Harris County officials to create special drug courts to oversee intensive supervision of those convicted of using illicit substances or abusing alcohol. Each time she tried, the Houston legislator's efforts were rebuffed.

Now, as a bill authored by the longtime Democrat sails through the legislature, Thompson finally has the county's attention by threatening a hefty portion of its law enforcement funding.

Last month the Texas House of Representatives passed Thompson's House Bill 1287, which would force Harris, Bexar, El Paso, Hidalgo and Tarrant counties to create the special drug courts. The measure is now in the Senate Criminal Justice Committee.

"It was very popular in committee," reports Patrick Johnson, Thompson's staff counsel. He expects the measure to be approved and signed into law without a problem. "Most of the Harris County delegation wants a drug court, and they want to get started on it."

It is not, however, extremely popular with Harris County District Attorney Chuck Rosenthal. Although Rosenthal is not opposed to drug courts per se, he is opposed to the sanctions that are included in the bill for the counties that fail to establish those special courts.

If the county does not create a drug court by September 2002, it stands to lose a significant amount of state grants earmarked for crime-fighting. An example of the threatened funding can be seen with the Harris County Organized Crime and Narcotics Task Force. In the fiscal year ending May 1999, the force alone received more than $3.1 million in Department of Justice grant money that is funneled through the governor's office. Grants to fight juvenile crime and spousal abuse are also in potential jeopardy if the county fails to establish drug courts.

"I'm not against them," Rosenthal says. "I'm just not sure that it's going to make the difference that Senfronia Thompson and some other people would like to see."

But Thompson and other supporters of the bill think drug courts do indeed make a difference.

"It has a greater success rate and lower recidivism rate than any other program that exists -- more than deferred adjudication, parole or probation," says Johnson.

Unlike traditional interaction in courtrooms, drug court judges have one-on-one relationships with every offender for the duration of the offender's participation in the program, usually about 12 months. During that time, the participants -- nonviolent first offenders -- are required to be employed or in job training, and to attend a daily 12-step meeting such as Alcoholics Anonymous or Narcotics Anonymous.

They are also subject to almost daily drug-testing, especially in the initial phase of their program. However, unlike programs such as deferred adjudication, where one bad urinalysis can send a probationer to prison for his full term, drug courts are generally more tolerant of relapses. They are designed to eliminate the adversarial relationship between the court and the offender.

The concept began in Miami in 1989, in an effort to reduce soaring drug case dockets and to break the addictions of offenders.

According to the National Drug Court Institute, 550 drug courts are now in operation across the country. In addition to producing a lower recidivism rate, the NDCI claims that drug courts also produce a $10 savings for every $1 spent on the court. The savings, says the NDCI, are in reduced prison costs.

Rosenthal is not convinced by the numbers touted by the drug court advocates.

"We've looked at some of these drug programs around the country, and we really don't see a whole lot of difference between the results of these programs and just putting offenders on deferred adjudication," says the district attorney. "The success rates are virtually imperceptible." Rosenthal says his people have reviewed the drug court operation in Oakland, California. "They count it as a success if someone went through the program and then wasn't arrested for a felony within six months," he says. "By my standards, that's not really a success."

Thompson's bill does not provide funding for the new court. So the job of establishing one here -- the Legislative Budget Board estimates it will cost at least $300,000 a year -- would fall to Harris County Commissioners Court. Precinct 3 Commissioner Steve Radack calls the idea of tying law enforcement grant money to the creation of a drug court "legislative blackmail."

"It sounds like a perfect bill for Governor Perry to veto," says Radack. "It's ludicrous to think that you are going to be compelled to do something that you don't need. And I yield to the district attorney when it comes to deciding whether we need courts or not. Why punish the county and the taxpayers for not creating something they don't need? Is there somebody running around town that needs to be a judge, or what?"

Somewhat surprisingly, the president of the Texas Civil Liberties Union tends to agree with Radack. Greg Gladden, a defense attorney who specializes in drug cases, notes that if the court is created, it likely will be presided over by visiting or retired judges. He adds that the idea is similar to the so-called project courts that existed here for a few years in the mid-1990s.

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