Manatee County's Drug DUI Courts show great success, should be spared

Nothing illustrates the value of the 12th Judicial Circuit's Drug and DUI Courts better than one of the graduation ceremonies. During the most recent, last Thursday, 10 people celebrated three to four months of sobriety with family, friends, counselors and judges after completing the circuit court's requirements for the program.

But could this one positive moment be the last for this specialized court? Without adequate funding from Manatee County, that is the fear.

In human terms, the value cannot be measured in dollars and cents for those who graduate, maintain sobriety and lead productive lives.

In monetary terms, the value can be measured in the tax dollars saved by the court participants' success in staying out of an expensive legal and corrections system.

Incarceration alone is quite costly. Nonviolent drug and DUI offenders volunteer for the program as an alternative to jail.

With the courts' sterling record -- 80 percent of defendants remain arrest-free within 18 months of graduation -- the numbers speak volumes about the cost-effective nature of this government program.

Manatee shares the expense with Sarasota as a partner county in the 12th Judicial Circuit Court.

Last week, the circuit's public defender, Larry Eger, and the court's administrator, Walt Smith, took their case about funding before Manatee County commissioners. Eger expressed concern that a lack of adequate funding "would effectively end Drug Court in Manatee County."

That would be a shame.

Eger and Smith requested funding for a third drug counselor ($52,000), court administration ($10,000), half the expense of a Drug Court coordinator ($40,929) and attorney fees for Drug Court ($38,826).

Manatee County is again grappling with an austere budget, and new recurring costs will be difficult to absorb. The question becomes are these costs reasonable and critical to the program's survival?

The courts' requirements are rigid. Participants must attend weekly one-on-one counseling sessions and regular group counseling, join outside support groups, and agree to random urinalysis tests. Some perform community service projects.

They do not get a free ride. Drug Court enrollees pay $15 a week, though that can be waived for those who perform community service. DUI Court participants pay $200 a month in addition to community service. Combined, the two counties have an enrollment of some 140 to 145 clients.

Last week's graduation ceremony marked a milestone for the program -- its 15th anniversary. With a focus on recovery instead of incarceration, the courts rebuild lives.

And save them, too. In her report on the graduation, the Herald's Elizabeth Johnson cited a startling statistic from Erika Randall, Sarasota County's Drug and DUI Court manager.

Over the past 15 years, "88 babies have been born drug free," Randall stated. Drug-addicted newborns require intensive hospital treatment, and Randall estimated the savings from avoiding those costs at $12 million -- an expense that in all likelihood would fall on taxpayers.

The Drug and DUI Courts enjoy a high rate of return on the investment. While the line items proposed to Manatee County commissioners must be scrutinized and justified, the courts' merits are undeniable and the program should not be allowed to wither.