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BOCC Puts Drug Court Under the Microscope


BRADENTON --  Last December the Manatee County Commission requested that County Administrator Ed Hunzeker schedule a work session that focused on the services, budget and outcomes of the county's drug court program. Tuesday, at that work session, commissioners met with all of the principal drug court players to get a first hand report on the success of the program. 

The drug court first came to Florida in 1989, in effort to alleviate the overloaded court dockets and jail expense for a select group of drug offenders. 

Manatee County adopted the program in 1997 to prevent drug use and crime from getting out of control in their county. Chief Judge Andrew Owens was there at the inception and has proudly remained since.

"We get to make a difference by looking at one person at a time," said Judge Owens, adding, "We look to see who can make a change, as in 'good choices.'"

Judge Owens was joined by State Attorney Ed Brodsky and Chief Assistant Lon Arend; Court Administrator Walt Smith; Public Defender Larry Eger; and Drug Court Manager, Alfred James.

Brodsky thanked commissioners for funding, and said, "I have worked the drug court myself." Brodsky praised the successes of drug court. "We have increased the number of those in the program, because it works." 

Public Defender Larry Eger said, "We use behavioral modification and diversion … because crime is quite costly." Eger added, "drug court is fiscally responsible."

Walt Smith said, "We think if we solve the addiction, we solve the crime." Smith continued, "We focus on not sending them to prison."

Alfred James said the collaboration in this drug court is the best he has ever seen, and Chief Assistant State Attorney Lon Arend told the panel he meets with the Judge every Thursday to review cases. 

The Manatee County Drug Court has provided treatment to 1,246 participants since the year 2000. There are currently 173 active participants in the program.

The drug court measures success by the number of people who are not re-arrested for up to 24 months after graduation from the program. The team running the Drug Court call their 82.9% "recidivism" rate, worthy of a blue ribbon.

Brodsky asked the commission what they thought of contacting different organizations, such as Police unions, for a coordinated effort to get the necessary funds (through grants and donations) to keep the program operation available for those it is suited for. 

Commissioners' response were all alike; money, money money. Each echoed the other with testimony to a dwindling budget and operational funds. 

Both Smith and Eger reminded the commission that they have to look at the dollars saved, not spent, and Brodsky added, "Nothing compares to the current successes."

The team testified to the cost to the county for each person, being around $71 a day. The cost of someone in the program is $32. That is less than half of the amount, of a stay in jail. For just the current 173 participants, it comes to a savings of over $6,700, per day.

But commissioners seemed to fall short on enthusiasm, expressing some gratitude and praise, but ultimately returning to their preoccupation with the budget and how it is shrinking.

Commissioners threw some ideas at the team, like getting the participants to carry their own weight and cough-up some more cash if they want to stay out of jail.

The message of how important the program is did ultimately seem to get across to the commission. They thanked the panel for their commitment and success, agreeing to take the information back to their drawing board and meet again soon.


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